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Kevin Kelly on the future of publishing


The video above is of a twenty minute-or-so presentation given recently by Kevin Kelly at the O'Reilly TOC 2011 conference held in New York. TOC - Or Tools of Change for Publishing - is an event concentrating on the changes digital technology is bringing to (some might say inflicting on) the world of publishing. Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, and a widely-respected thinker on the technological future, kicks off his talk by saying that his most recent book, What Technology Wants, will be his last that is "native" to print (leaving himself a little opening, I thought) and then launches into an adroit exposition of the technological-social context in which publishing currently finds itself. Kelly observes six current vital trends:

  • Screening - Screens are becoming ubiquitous in our lives.
  • Interacting - We expect to interact with content, intellectually and, increasingly, physically.
  • Sharing - All our media activity is becoming social.
  • Accessing - The future of media is in access rather than ownership.
  • Flowing - The paradigm of the page is coming to an end; instead narratives and information exist in constantly reconfigured streams.
  • Generating - There is financial/economic value to be generated in this environment, but not along existing lines - or at least not in the long run.

This last theme, generating, or, if you prefer, value-driving, is the explored at more depth in the last quarter or so of the talk, as Kelly looks at some of the ways producers (by which I think he means a catch-all for publishers, e/retailers and authors) might continue to make money in this space. All of them essentially revolve around providing a service based a product which is essentially becoming free. He touches on:

  • Making it easy to pay 
  • Immediacy
  • Personalisation and customisation
  • Authentication
  • Findability
  • Embodiment
  • Interpretation
  • Accessibility
  • Attention (or patronage)

These are familiar observations to me because they're all being felt - or have been - by the industry in which I cut my teeth: the record industry. What  does strike me in the context of this blog, is how much of the changed environment described by Kelly needs to be underpinned by good metadata and metadata schema. I won't, right now, go into the philosophical rows about whether that metadata is folksonomic or centralised, fuzzy or definitive or whatever - they're arguments to be rehearsed elsewhere. But it's clear from my experience that when metadata is incoherent, inaccessible, inaccurate or any combination of these, it's difficult, if not impossible, to build the kinds of services Kelly is talking about. 


That's a problem of course, but it's also a great business opportunity - or thousands of opportunities. Oh, did anyone say £5 million Metadata Tools of Production funding competition?


A Footnote: I'm perhaps even a more committed bibliophile than I am record collector, so a non-physical future for the book leaves me a little saddened. But that's saddened, not in denial. Funnily enough, only this morning, as I write, I read an insightful, and, it seems to me, thoroughly correct blog post by the brilliant network culture commentator Kazys Varnelis on the inevitability of a virtual future for books. "Let's face it, a personal library is the academic's version of an SUV. It's handy for when you need it, but it's big and unwieldy, a poor choice when it comes to ecology and not a defensible option in a world of limits except for those who really, truly need them." Not sure I could argue with that, even were I inclined to.

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