Since I learnt this week that this is the centenary of the great Canadian scholar and mystifiers’ birth, I cannot resist using the fact, and using it to get back into a groove that seemed to escape me last week. I justify this by saying that I only write when I have something to say. On the other hand I have something to say far more often than I write, but I need an impulse to get me over the hump and force me to find time and concentration. That impulse is almost always the ability to use this to postpone starting something else equally important. In this way my life turns into a series of deadlines, each one creating pressure and driving activity. I dread to think what might happen if these pressures to perform were removed: would I sit down and read the whole of “Colonel Roosevelt”, the third volume of Edmund Morris’s grand life of the progressive President, and my current obsession, in one go, like some greedy schoolboy, the Fat Owl of the Remove, consuming chocolate cake? Probably. I am not a very refined person. And I do like to gloat.

Which brings me back to writing. This week’s impulsion came during the Publishers’ Forum in Berlin. I was listening to one of the beguiling masters of change, Robert Stein, describing his experimental work in his SocialBook Inc operation. I have no doubt that he is right: in a networked society reading becomes a social activity, and that I should not be secretively curling up with the Colonel, but actively debating with you and other readers (and I do know another current reader as it happens) whether Roosevelt was right to run against Taft in 1912. And was it Woodrow Wilson who was the true progressive? I know perhaps 5 people with whom I could have this discussion, and no doubt I could find 50 more online if this book were a social document. And it would be cream on my chocolate cake to have those talks, but they would slow down and retard the progress through the book, which now occupies late evenings and weekends. I read 37 books of this size last year: how many would I read in a social hall of mirrors? And would the conversation and friendship derived from Bob’s social vision, from his four styles of social reading embedded in a browser-type interface that allowed me to annotate pages, read other readers comments and interact with them, would all that compensate me for only reading 5 books a year?

Earlier in the session, part of an increasingly highly regarded meeting, put together by Klopotek, the publishing workflow specialist (, I heard Liza Daly talking about ePub 3. I welcome this with open arms, delighted by the speed with which this revised standard is being produced, warmed by Liza’s clear and emphatic summation of its aims, and only depressed by the liklyhood that hardware vendors will take their time in introducing compliant devices. As Liza summarized it, the major advances, as well as using HTML5, are in language use (however did we persuade ourselves that vertical reading as well as horizontal left-right as well as right-left was not necessary – and thus exclude at a stroke Chinese, Korean and Japanese!); interactivity; audio and video; and design/layout conventions that allow pages to refocus themselves appropriately in terms of the screen size being used to view them. The gains here will be for graphic novels, the beginnings of multimedia in eBook, and, I would guess, for the further evolution of the eTextbook (whatever that may be). As Liza came to an end I found myself at once delighted by a real progress report by a real expert on real progress made, and straining to see the expression on Stein’s face to see if he was thinking what I was thinking: “Fifteen years on the Internet and we are only now installing the features that were so important, in the early 1990s, on multimedia CD-ROM”!

Unfortunately he was sitting in front of me, but in those days in the early ’90s when “bandwidth” meant “fixed disc”, not Broadband, Robert’s Voyager operation was the shining example of creativity in the US market in this sector. His example was very encouraging to people like me, an advisor to and non-executive director of Dorling Kindersley Ltd, who, through the drive and determination of Peter Kindersley (an impatient innovator whose background as a designer helped no end in the creation of this medium) were following rapidly along the same track to create a generation of  interactive disc-based reference products whose ingenuity and use of content and software have not yet been emulated in the eBook world. DK also produced a publisher of real note in Peter’s colleague, Alan Buckingham, who proved a master at stitching together resources and effects to produce deeply engaging learning and reference materials. Alan was the first maestro to paint with the whole multimedia palette: when eBooks grow up and they start giving awards for them, they should call them the “Buckies”!

So here is one example of the way in which markets sometimes have to loop back and rediscover themselves: Marshall McCluhan knew all about that when he spoke of the effect of television on film. Another Publishers Forum speaker said something similar: “Longtail is not a lucrative market unless you are an aggregator” said David Hetherington of Baker and Taylor. Which is why print on demand providers are aggregators and why publishers surrender their digital files to them. Which heralds the day, which David did not say, when publishing margins are more rentals and royalties than retail, pushing publishing even further away from organizing the marketplace and imperilling its position.

A hundred years ago a man was born who well described these and so many other changes in media marketplaces, and did it from the user viewpoint, creating a sort of sociological view of media access. Nothing here would surprize him in the least: he would have claimed it all as his.

PS. One very good reason for going to this conference, let alone the excellent content, is being inside Berlin’s wonderful conference centre, the Axica. Built by Frank Gehry for a bank that now cannot afford it, to our great advantage, the conference auditorium sits in the womb of the building beneath a glass canopy, while seminars are held in a wooden egg suspended above it. I got to use this, and can testify to its wonderful sound qualities: spectators sit in rising seating above the (?) bank’s board room table, for all the world like speaking in one of those anatomy theatres of the sixteenth century (Uppsala university has an outstanding example).


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  1. P U B L I S H I N G » Blog Archive » 100 Years of Marshall McLuhan on May 9, 2011 08:34

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