Since I last wrote a piece here I am older by three conferences and an exhibition. And no wiser for having spoken twice on cyber-security, a subject that baffles me every time I stand up to talk about it. The simple truth is that the world is changing in the networks at a pace that bewilders, yet the visions we have of where we are going hang before us like a tantalising but currently unattainable vision. Thus, if you ask me about the future of education, I can spin you a glowing tale of individuals learning individually, at their own pace, yet guided by the learning journey layer out by their teachers, who have now become their mentors. The journey is self-diagnostic and self-assessing, examinations have become redundant and we know what everyone knows and where their primary skills lie. Or in academic or industrial research, projects are driven by results, research teams recruited on that basis, and their reputation is scored in terms of the value their peers set on their accomplishments. The results of research are logged and cited in ways that make them accessible to fellow researchers in aligned fields – by loading and pointing to evidential data, or noting results and referencing them on specialized or community sites, or by conventional research reporting. Peer review is continual, as research remains valid until it is invalidated and may rise and fall in popularity more than once. And so on through business domains, medicine and healthcare, agriculture and the whole range of human activity…

But at this point, when I talk about the growing commonality of vision, the role of workflow analysis, RPA, what happens next with machine learning, the eventual promise of AI, a hand shoots up and I find myself answering questions from the ex-CFO/now CEO about next years budget, and when will the existing IT investment pay back, and can this all be outsourced and surely we don’t need to do any more than buy the future when it arrives? And of course these questions are all very pertinent. We all need to assure revenues and margins next year if we are to see any part of this future. And next years revenues will come from products and services which will look more like last years than they do like the things we shall be doing in 2025, even if we had an idea of what those might be. It is one thing knowing something about the horizons, quite another to design a map to get there. So at every point we seek every way we can to buttress future-proofing, and at the moment I am seeing a spate of that in acquisitions. Just as last year putting the word “Analytics” at the end of your name (Clarivate, Trevino) added a billion to the exit valuation, so this year the dotai suffix has proved to be a real M&A draw.

But those big Analytics sales were made, and will be onsold to people who want to expand their data and services holdings. The .ai sales are transplants from the seedbed, and far earlier stages of transplantation are involved. Having worked for some years as an advisor to Quayle Munro (now, as an element of Houlihan Lokey, part of one of the largest global M&A outfits) I realise that smaller and smaller sales may not be considered a good thing, but I cannot resist the idea that seeking some future tech developments into your incubator environment is going to have some really beneficial long term effects. It already has at Digital Science. As Clarivate lerans from what Kopernio knows it will help . As the magic of rubs off on T&F, it will help there.

But, again, we are begging a hundred questions. Can you really future proof by buying innovation? Well, only to a limited effect, but by having innovators inside you can learn a lot, at least from their different perspective on your existing customers. Don’t you need to keep them from being crushed by the managerial bureaucracy of the rest of the business? Yes, but why not try to fee up the arthritic bits rather than treating the flexible bits? What if you have bought the wrong future tech? Even the act of misbuying will give you useful pointers the next time round, but if you have bought the right people they will be able to change direction. What if software people and text publishing people do not get on? They will need to be managed – this is your test – since if we fail the future will be conditioned entirely by software giants licensing data from residual fixed income publishers.

Are there any conditioning steps I should be taking to ease into this future? Yes, forget ease and go faster. Look first at your own workflow. To what extent is workflow automated? Do you have optimum ways of processing text? Are people or machines taking the big burdens on proof reading, or desk editing or manuscript preparation? Is your marketing as digital as it could be? Are you talking the language of services, and designing solutions for your users, or are you giving your users reference sources and expecting them to find the answers? Indeed, do you talk the language of solutions, or the ritual language of format – book, journal, page, article. Are we part of the world our users are entering, or are we stuck in the world they are exiting?  The exhibition I attended this month was the London Book Fair. I love it in all its inward-looking entrancement with itself, and its love affair with the title Publisher, the profession for which no qualification other than skill at explaining away unsuccess has ever been required. I can only take one day since I rapidly become depressed. But still there were very sparky moments – an impromptu discussion with the Chennai computer typesetter TNQ ( about their ProofControl 3.0 service told me that these guys are on the ball. But moments like this were rare. More often I felt I was watching the future –  of the industry in 1945!

So, my fiftieth Frankfurt came and went. Three days of intense and interesting discussion with people who are building very successful businesses from the technologies and the social change in a networked society which I have been studying and monitoring since the 1980s. Much of this is hugely encouraging, some is faintly irritating (I still get questions about what happens when print re-asserts itself, or when will innovation be over!). But all of it, nine meetings a day, the receptions, and chairing the Innovation Day opening session, is, frankly – tiring! By Friday I needed a break.

And that duly came, though in the most surprizing manner. On Saturday I journied out of Frankfurt and down the Rhine valley to the comparatively (in German terms) “new town” of Karlsuhe. I wanted to revisit FIZ Karlsruhe, a part of the Leibniz Institute of Information Infrastructure, which is based some 12 km north of the site on the campus of KIT, the great technical university. That visit, on the following Monday, was all I had hoped it to be, and a testimony to the powerful work of these part (25%) state funded institutions in Germany. But more of that in its own context, having travelled through Boston the previous week, and experienced a grand party to celebrate the 50 years stuff with some 100 friends (enough of that now that we are in year 51!) I was pooped. My only interest was a delightful book on the history of sixteenth century Albania and I was quite prepared to embrace that for the weekend had not Karlsruhe itself intervened.

As I said, it is a new town. Started in 1715 as the Margrave of Baden sought to distance himself from the unruly citizens of Durlach. He built a monumental castle, and from his front door planned city streets running out from that central point in a great fan shape – its nickname is the fan shaped city. Thomas Jefferson, visiting at the other end of the same century, was impressed and its structure finds echoes in L’Enfant’s Washington. I was impressed too, and despite the disruption of installing a metro system, this remains a civilized and relaxed place. Go to Grundrechte square and you can see the civil liberties enjoyed by Germans emblazoned on street signs – this is the home of the German Federal Supreme and Constitutional Courts. The fact that this is a university town gives a pleasant diversity. By the time I reached the doors of the ZKM I was beginning to revive, but I had no idea of what I was to encounter next.

Imagine a huge munitions factory, stripped and turned vast  three story galleries that reminded me of the central space at Tate Modern – only much longer. Then fill that with a wholly mixed population of all ages and abilities united in one pursuit – finding art and enjoyment in immersion in digital media. Walk into a room where cameras pick you up and show you on a screen. I paused before the slightly alarming image before me, when all of a sudden I was joined on screen by the people who had passed through earlier, all crowding and laughing and strolling around my similarly moving image. Then turn to a scanner which wants to look at objects in your pockets, and then similarly mixes them on screen with the images from other pockets. Very simple stuff, this, but it drove the laughter and delight of the visitors as they went to other galleries, brought their own devices into play and felt the power of the most perfectly designed and produced art gallery for digital as art that I have yet seen. ZKM is Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, and is an example to us all of the artistic and educational value of digital art. Gloomy reporters who ask what can be done to prevent children from spending too much time on their devices should be sent here for retraining. The networks provide digital opportunity for multimedia and individual media expression  and social art of a high order. This has to be better acknowledged than it is in conventional media exchanges, and here is a wonderful example of how to do it.

And learn from it. As I wandered through the elements of a major show called Hydrid Layers I was struck, involved and then compelled to watch a deck called Basilisk, a video performance by an American artist called Daniel Keller. Using two ideas – the Streisand Effect, which occurred when the actor’s lawyers forced the removal from the Web of an image only previously seen by ten people, thus exciting the curiosity of millions, and the Basilisk concept, from the ancient world via Harry Potter, where the threat can only be extinguished by holding up a mirror, he explores the 2016 US election. With Google Maps shots of Streisand’s former Malibu home being undermined by coastal erosion as a backdrop, Keller uses flat and unemotional language to explain the US Alt-right memes around Pepe the frog, the frog pharaoh, and the Cult of Kek, and how this symbolism and its cartoon imagery became important in the attack on Clinton and the election of Trump. And, if we are ever to hold the Mirror up to the Basilisk, these are things about a networked society that we must learn and understand. Indeed, unless we have museums and galleries like this it is very hard to see how we can, at any age, learn and understand.

I left ZKM with the same sore feet that I had brought down from Frankfurt. Perhaps slightly worse. But I was elated and refreshed by what I had seen. If the Hydrid Layers or Art of Immersion shows come to a place near you please rush to see them. The only way to stop our kids falling for the Kek Effect is to immerse them so thoroughly in digital art and society that they have the ability to fashion their own mirrors to expose to the face of ever-present Basilisks.


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