From society of the book to a networked society

Neerav Bhatt did an interesting post about Encyclopedia Britannica, saying:

Organisations in the information industry such as Book Publishers and Libraries would do well to learn from Encyclopedia Britannica’s precipitous fall from grace. Formerly a powerful company that could demand and receive large payments for access to it’s storehouse of human knowledge, it’s now been reduced to near irrelevancy and suffers the ignoble fate of being sold by discount clearance stores. — Neerav Bhatt

It is very easy to sit here in 2009 and critique Encyclopedia Britannica’s decisions with 20/20 hindsight. But it is a difficult situation for a business when:

  1. the world you inhabit has been stable & profitable for a very long time, and your product has worked very well in that environment;
  2. then quite quickly the very thing that has made your product valuable (i.e. fact checked and professionally researched articles delivered in hard copy volumes) is no longer valued in the same way as previously.

Few organisations seem able to develop metrics that help them to detect seismic shifts in the competitive landscape. An interesting parallel is the iPhone & all the other mobile phone manufacturers. The entire playing field has shifted from the simple mobile phone to a converged mobile computing/music/video device and the other manufacturers are scrabbling to catch up.

The problem for Encyclopedia Britannica was that they were in the middle of a genuine paradigm shift (in the Kuhnian sense) and that they did not realise it (nor did many of us back in those days). This is the shift from a society of the book to a networked society. We are still only at the beginning of this shift and Encyclopedia Britannica was an early casualty.

The shift from a society of the book to the networked society has been made possible by the emergence of the internet and its continued evolution.

What do I mean by this? In the past we had the book as a unit of collected information. It was revolutionary! A book was easy to share with others and to transport anywhere. Knowledge that was once transmitted by one person to another orally could be translated into a book and shared with many. Nor did the author need to be physically present to transmit their ideas. It was only necessary that the audience become literate for books to revolutionise the world. The power of the book is evident in the Protestant Reformation and the various European revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

But the problem with books is that to merge ideas from two texts it is necessary to create a new book. However, with the internet and HTML we moved from the unitary texts to hypertexts. With web 1.0 many us whiled away hours surfing the hyperlinks to find new information and find things we’d never know existed before. With the current phase of the web (sometimes called web 2.0), we have moved beyond textual linking to linking people, information, groups and applications. And the next generation of the web, sometimes called the semantic web, will enable networking to be taken even further. This is sometimes referred to as the internet of things, and it will enable us to connect people, places and things.

It is this growth of networks that will create a networked society.  And it is one of the reasons why Twitter is such an interesting example of how these network based technologies can be a force for social change.  Unlike Facebook, which is all about people we already know, Twitter is about people we don’t know yet.  An important part of this change is the ability to recreate a village like set of relationships that are not constrained by physical co-location.  These social networks give us the ability to experience non-localised proximity with other people.  They extend our reach from those physically nearby to anywhere in the world.

When we put this all together with the democratisation of technology that has accompanied web 2.0 then it is the beginning of a shift in societal relations akin to the printing press. I wonder where it will take us?


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