June 26, 2015

A Digital Babylon

Human progress typically goes hand in hand with the spread of ideas.  The easier it becomes to propagate and discuss new ideas, the more rapidly we acheive technological progress.

The establishment of the first cities emerged in Mesopotamia around 7000 year ago. These cities created a density of population that facilitated the rapid communication of ideas and collaboration between smart people. The invention of writing around the same time made it easier to record those important ideas and to spread important knowledge among others and between generations. Mesopotamia became an engine of technological advancement. It was here that mathematics, astronomy and transport developed, and the existence of cities allowed people to become specialists in each of these fields.

Simplification of writing systems and the invention of better writing materials made it progressively easier for later civilizations to record and share their ideas. But it was the invention of the printing press in 1445 that ushered in a new era of mass communication. The printing press led to three significant effects:

  1. The cost of production came down dramatically. This made it easier for more people to contribute ideas to society. Books were published across a range of disciplines, including science, philosophy, economics and law. Previously books had been the domain of the church and of clerics.
  2. Wider distribution. Books became affordable to the growing middle-class.  More people were exposed to scientific discoveries and there was a greater cross-fertilization of ideas. Literacy rose across Europe.
  3. Speed of dissemination. A good idea would disseminate faster because it could be distributed to more people simultaneously, spreading between Italy, France and England much faster than ever before.

Of course, this didn’t all happen immediately. It was an incremental process – helped by continuous improvement to the printing process and the falling price of paper. And much like today, not everybody was happy with this process of “democratization”. Many people warned of a decline in quality and an overload of information. Conrad Gessner, a Swiss Botanist, published his “universal bibliography” of printed works in 1545. It contained around 10,000 titles, and perhaps overwhelmed by the size of the task he had taken on, Gessner lamented the “confusing and harmful abundance of books”. At the same time the established disseminators of information (largely the church) did not like their monopoly challenged and attempted to ban books that were considered “heretical”. Of course, as we often see today, the banning these books only served to increase demand.

Martin Luther’s protestant reformation was among the most prominent examples of something that “went viral” thanks in large part to the technology of the printing press. His “Ninety-Five Thesis” saw 250,000 copies printed and was critical in spreading his movement. (In proportion to the world population this is equivalent to around 5m copies today and comparable to sales of Justin Bieber’s “Believe” album).

The mass-adoption of the internet is now accelerating what started with the printing press. We are seeing another major step change in each of the three factors discussed above:

  1. The cost of production now is close to zero – anyone with a $100 computer and a word processer can author a piece of work. The proliferation of publishing platforms has made it fast and simple to upload your work to the internet.
  2. Distribution is much wider.   There are now 3.1 billion people in the world connected to the internet (you can see this figure growing here). Access to this community is no longer limited by physical location and the existence of specialized distribution platforms ensures that you connect to the right audience.
  3. Speed of dissemination is now instantaneous.

There are now plenty of platforms that facilitate “self-publishing”, and they are becoming increasingly niche. Blogging of course has been around for decades (WordPress/ Tumblr). Over the past few years we’ve seen impressive results with self-published books (witness the success of Amazon’s KDP). And more recently we’re seeing progress with scientific papers (Academia.edu) and stock research (which we are tackling via StockViews.com)

Once again the established disseminators of information are crying foul – the large publishing houses, the newspaper groups, academic journals and large banks are all unhappy with these developments. They complain about the involvement of “non-professionals” and the dilution of quality – exactly the same criticism that publishers faced back in 15th century Europe. Before the onset of the printing press, the publishing of books was tightly controlled by “professionals” (the clerics). When renaissance scientists started to publish information, they were branded as heretics. While today’s publishers of stock research are unlikely to be burnt at the stake by Goldman Sachs, there will inevitably be attempts by the large banks to discredit this new model.

The transformative power of the Internet is huge because it enables simultaneous participation among a large group of people. Much of the technology of the modern era has been about one-way communication – the printing press, the radio, the TV have all involved transmitting information in one direction. The telephone enabled two-way dialogue, but involved a limited number of people who were already connected. What’s unique about the Internet is that it allows for large groups of interested parties to discuss and collaborate on an idea in real-time. This is a characteristic that we have yet to fully appreciate or capitalize upon. Today’s digital platforms share many of the characteristics that made the ancient cities of Mesopotamia so successful. These digital platforms are places with a density of smart people, willing to exchange ideas, engage in debate, and make progress together. The only difference being that these digital cities are now home to 3.1bn inhabitants.

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