I sat down to write a glowing note on the Digital Science conference at London’s glorious Royal Institution last night. “Inventing the Future” was a huge success and underlined the creative quality of the debate on the digital future in this city. As I stared ruminatively at my blank screen, an alert crossed it: Emap have decided to split themselves into three parts, to be called (no, I am not kidding) Top Right Group (something to do with graphs?) for the whole outfit, i2i Events for the (you guessed it!) events division, 4C Group for the information division (“Fore-see”, geddit?), and, triumphantly, EMAP Publishing for the magazines. Given that they did not waste any of that expensive rebranding budget on the magazines we can guess that this lot are for sale first (though a rumour today also gives that honour to the CAP automotive data unit). The best guess is that everything is for sale, and some reports are already citing advisory appointments in a variety of places.

Meanwhile, the philosophers of the night before had been talking of the very nature of the digital, networked society. Their threnody was “Open”. JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist at Salesforce.com (I have heard this man twice in a week and would be happy to go again for more tomorrow) set the tone. We have to realize that the network has turned our media picture on its head. Now we have to understand the ways in which consumers are re-using and reshaping content. The social networks are ways of amplifying and diminishing those responses, filtering and distilling them. The publisher’s role is to get out of the way – this is not a push world anymore, but act as a distributor and reproducer of excellence without doing harm or trying to outbid the creativity of endusers. Stian Westlake of NESTA, looking at this from a policy viewpoint, saw the need to rebalance the investment, to innovate in areas of strength like the UK financial services markets, and to make education fit the requirement of a networked economy. As JP said, re-quoting Stewart Brand “information wants to be free”. We have it in abundance, while we have scarce resources for shaping and forming it as users want it, and enabling them to do that in their own contexts.

It turns out, of course, that some of the data we want is held by government. The third speaker was Professor Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of AI at Southampton, Director of the new Open data Institute, and Sir Tim Berners Lee’s vice-gerent and apostolic delegate to the UK government’s Open Data programme here on earth. He mercifully skated across the difficulties of getting governments to do what they have said they will do, while pointing out that despite the fad of Big Data, linked data was now a vital component at all levels, big and small, in delivering the liberating effect of making compatible data available for remixing. With these three speakers we were in the magic territory of platform publishing. Here it was unthinkable not to promulgate your APIs. Here was a collaborative world of licensing and data sharing. Here was a vision of many of the things we shall be doing to to create a data-driven world in the networks for the net benefit of all of us.

And then I read the EMAP announcement, and it brings home the way in which the present and the future are pulling apart radically at the moment. No one looked at the EMAP holdings through the eyes of customers, buyers, or users. Channel and format, the classifications of the past, are the only way that current managers can see their businesses. So we divide into three channels what needed to be seen as a platform environment, created by ripping out all the formats and making all of the data neutral and remixable in any context. So the building and construction marketplace at EMAP, which has magazines, data and events (events – the greatest source of data yet discovered on earth), becomes a way of shaping and customizing content for users large and small, directed by them and driven by their requirements. But the advisors cannot understand anything but ongoing businesses, the strategy has no place in the IM, the McGraw-Hill failure to do this at Dodds and Sweets is not encouraging, so we divide the stuff into parcels that can be sold, and sell it off at small portion of its worth, while blaming the technology that could save it for “disrupting” it to death.

Maybe this is right. Maybe the old world has to be purged before the new one takes over. Maybe we have to go through the waste of redundancies, the dissipation of content, the loss of continuity with users/readers/customers before they are able to show us once again what we really should be doing. But now, when we know so much about “inventing the future” this seems a very rum way of proceeding. Incidentally, last night’s conference host, Digital Science, is a very exciting Macmillan start-up whose business it is to invest in software developed by users in science research to support their work. Truly then a new player with more than a whiff of the zeitgeist of this conference in its nostrils. Those of us with long memories remember an older Macmillan, however. One that owned the Healthcare and nursing magazine market, and lapped up the jobs advertising cream in the days when users (or the NHS), could not use the web as an advertising environment. So Macmillan sold its magazine division before the advertising crash – to EMAP. It is people, decisions and the choices made by users that change things. It is hardly new to note that lack of a tide table can create serious risk of drowning, but it could be true.

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