The Apps Will Not Set Them Free

IsaKft is a writer and entrepreneur who runs fluffy-seme, a web-publishing platform (formerly a digital publishing house: see this guest post for her experiences as a digital publisher). Today she talks about her experiences at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change (aka TOC2011) conference, which concluded last week.

I have never seen so many iPads in one room before in my life.

It was like walking into an Apple store, except the business casual gurus at the podium were not Steve Jobs but representatives from the various factions of digital publishing. I don’t know if tech can save publishing, but looking around the room as the speaker blathers on about ePub3 I can guess what the professionals think.

O’Reilly’s annual Tools of Change conference is all about pushing the boundaries of publishing and applying innovation to tired paradigms and business models. It sounds exciting and certainly many aspects of it were exciting. The Startup Showcase was a room full of interesting ideas (including mine!) for every facet of publishing: community lead storytelling, ultimate dictionaries, digital ‘DVD extras’ for books … there was no shortage of innovation on hand.

But other aspects of the conference were more telling. For example, I arrived at Data-driven Marketing and Product Development eager to pick up some new tricks only to find myself sitting in Design Process 101. I sat through a ten minute explanation of iterative design basics that have been around since the 80ties, while a fascinated audience of publishers took careful notes on their iPads, before I left.

Seriously? Are the leaders of publishing so far behind that methodology that was ground breaking when cellphones were the size of tissue boxes is news?

Moving down the hall I slipped into Can You Afford Not to Consider Accessible Publishing Practices? That I misunderstood what was meant by ‘accessible publishing’ was a happy accident, because this was probably the best lecture I saw. Dave Gunn broke down the technology that is making access to publications for the disabled cheaper and easy to pull off, but what stood out for me was the point he made about how the futuristic tech of today is built on tools originally designed for the disabled. Computers can analyze movies because of Closed Captioning, cars can respond to voice commands because of recognition software, inventions that track eye movement are bringing us closer to machines that we can control with our minds. This was what I came here for. This was really interesting stuff.

This was also the least attended of all the panels and workshops I saw. There were maybe forty of us in a room arranged to hold two hundred.

There’s an old joke about the first web bubble and the death of the business method patent. Once a relatively obscure legal structure, business method patents surged when entrepreneurs found they could use them to patent completely normal transactions simply by adding ‘on the internet’ to the description.

This is a shopping cart … on the internet.
This is credit card processing … on the internet!

Eventually these patents proved unenforceable– and therefore a colossal waste of money– because there’s nothing really innovative about doing what you’ve always done just ON THE INTERNET.

Sometimes when I look at what the experts are calling the future of publishing I feel like it’s business method patents all over again. Most of the talk from publishers is ‘how can we use this tech to continue doing what we’ve always done, to bring back the good old days?’ Very little talk about how tech can be used to cast light on the inefficiencies that brought us the bad old days to begin with. Very little talk about how tech can be used to minimize waste, increase accountability and sell books smarter.

Over lunch I met Rick, an IT guy for a big name publisher. He ranted to anyone who would listen about the critical flaws in accountability at his own company. Books are judged based on units out the door, shipped to the Walmarts and Barnes and Nobles of the world. By the time the real sale figures have come in and actual profits or losses realized the congratulations and bonuses have already been issued and the editorial staff is working on other projects. The people who put out books that lose money never receive any feedback, never learn from their mistakes the way they could. It’s inefficiencies like this that are driving publishers out of business. Precisely the types of problems that tech can solve. Today.

I suppose none of this should come as a surprise. First rule about technology is that technology does not change behavior, technology only makes existing behaviors faster and easier. A colleague of mine is one of those great idea people, always telling me about a new gadget that’s going to make him organized enough to execute. It never happens because there’s nothing about a gadget that can change his attitudes or the way he sees the world, which is the root of the behavior. That’s what technology is: not a change maker, merely an accelerant.

The tools to change publishing are already here– most of them have been here for two decades– but can publishers learn to appreciate them? Or will I come back to a much smaller TOCcon 2031 and find myself sneaking out of a workshop called OMG There’s This Real Time Sales Tracking Thing, Did You Know????

IsaKft runs fluffy-seme, writes The Freelancers (amongst other things!) and may be found on Twitter as @IsaKft.

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Guest Bloggers · Publishing
  • Lee

    Technology doesn’t change behaviour? What an odd rule. Easy example: the internet has apparently changed the way we read and concentrate. And faster may in fact may mean different – more superficial, for one.

    Sure, human nature is human nature (forgive the wretched triteness), but it’s context (historical, social, technological etc.) that’s key.

    P.S. I love my iPad, but read entirely differently than with a print book and pencil in my hand.

  • Isa

    Lee: Has it really? Or has the internet just amplified existing neurological patterns and behaviors?

    Tech can trigger certain small cosmetic changes in approach: attention span, language, expectations, etc. But I have never seen a person alter their behavior with tech. Social networking has not made anti-social types charismatic, mobile devices have not made the disorganized suddenly organized…

    That’s not to say that people can’t change, just that technology by itself does not cause people to change … much in the same way gasoline by itself does not cause a fire. What I have seen is people doing more of what they would do without the tech, pushing existing behaviors to degrees where they become obvious (and frequently annoying). People choose how to apply tech to their lives and usually they choose to apply tech to reinforce stuff they’re already doing. So despite the fact that the tech to make publishing more profitable has been out there for years, it has not changed anything about the behavior of publishing.

  • Eli James

    I’m not sure, you know – I deleted my Facebook account because I couldn’t stand being so distracted with links and photos and superficial updates from my friends. Plus I wanted to get work done on the computer.

    And so I daresay that technology can change the way we think and do things, and we (or at least for me) would have to deal manage our reliance on it the same way you would any other forms of dependency.

  • Isa

    Well–LOL– as my last Novelr guest post showed, it’s entirely possible that I am completely wrong ^O^

  • Lee

    We should also make a distinction between individual changes in a person’s behaviour and larger-scale changes – scale both in terms of time and place.

  • Bill

    I couldn’t agree more with what the author was getting at. Technology is a tool, and like any tool it’s easy to think that it can do things that it really can.

    Fluffy_seme is totally right, a frying pan doesn’t make one a better chef, just like a BMW doesn’t make someone a good driver.

    I think that her observation applies to web fiction writers unnervingly well. A lot of weblit authors feverishly discuss the latest blog platforms, or the newest site designs. But many web fiction writers are still making the same mistakes that writers were making when the cutting edge technology was a Smith-Corona.

    They’re writing cliched, underdeveloped characters in cliched, underdeveloped stories. It is the exception rather than the norm that authors actually keep to their update schedules. And frighteningly too many writers are rude and condescending to those who don’t gush over their work.

    There’ll NEVER be any technology that will change that. That’s the responsibility of writers.

  • Eli James

    There’ll NEVER be any technology that will change that. That’s the responsibility of writers.

    Right as rain, Bill, right as rain. :)

  • Lee

    Oh really? The wheel – the ultimate tool – didn’t change us? Or the printing press?

    As to writing, I would certainly agree that tools like typewriters or PCs don’t make for better writing (though perhaps sometimes for different writing). But then I don’t think these are a writer’s tools. His tools are words and sentences, curiosity and observation, imagination. And the best, the very best literature you can read.

  • Eli James

    I think what Bill here means is the degree of reader engagement. I see writers (quite a number, in fact!) complaining that they don’t have readers, or that their readers don’t comment, or that their readers only comment on the last couple of chapters.

    Most of the time the reactions and suggestions bandied around are technological. And of course some of the solutions are technological. But I think it’s hard to say if reader response (or lack of) is a function of the technology, or the fact that the story sucks, or the fact that there aren’t enough readers, or the fact that the story isn’t the kind of story you want to leave comments on (literary fiction, for instance, I find I leave comments only at the very end, when I’ve taken my time to read and think everything through … though then again that’s me!)

  • Bill

    Lee, nobody is trying to say that tools and technology don’t have an effect on us.

    But they do not change CHARACTER. And they don’t impart things like ambition, dedication, or skill. Those things must be found the way they’ve been found since the dawn of time, through hard work.

    And that’s what this is really about. It is human nature to want to skip hard work. And because you are correct; technology does profoundly change entire societies; it’s easy to see it as the ultimate ticket out of hard work.

    And it just isn’t.

    The printing press was not the source of skill for Hemighway, Faulkner, or Shaw any more than Microsoft Word is the source of Joanne Rowling’s skill.

    The wheel didn’t make Dale Earnhardt, Sr. what he was, just as the invention of the seamed football didn’t make Tom Brady who he is.

    We are armed with technology that allows to commit every utterance of our minds into actual words and further technology that allows us to share those words with quite literally anyone that can draw breath. I would’ve said anyone that can read, but technology is making it so that even THAT’S not a requirement!

    And what do we do with this technology? We waste it. We waste it by spending more time on our WordPress theme than on writing dialogue that will connect with readers. We waste it by picking our Facebook quote rather than meaningfully connecting with our readers. We waste it by spending whole pay checks to self-publish, but refusing to spend a dollar on a good copy-editor.
    This….is a tragedy.

    We writers are like a man sitting a table full of all the food he could possibly want to eat, but he starves because he’s too busy trying to decide if he should use the wooden spoon or the Martha Stewart signature spoon-and-fork-in-one with ergonomic handle.

  • Lee

    Well, I’m not about to argue that my iPad will change my character! But I’m more inclined to explore the nature of character, and possible changes to it, in my fiction rather than in a brief comment, so I’ll bow to the expertise of others as to its essence.

    A tragedy – not at all. You’re using the word ‘tragedy’ rather loosely, not something a writer ought to do. In any case, there’s more than enough good writers to go round, so those who don’t bother to learn their craft – and I’m talking about at least 5 or 6 years of hard daily slog, and easily 10, as any decent violinist gives it – or have the determination, discipline, and perserverance to keep working beyond their failures, are not really writers anyway. I have no quibble with what they do; I just don’t want to waste my own time reading it.

    Connecting with readers is another waste of time. Write and revise, write and write and write – and read all you can. Readers can and will look after themselves.

  • Lee

    Something else just occurs to me, Bill. There seems to be a contraction in your view.

    ‘We are armed with technology that allows to commit every utterance of our minds into actual words and further technology that allows us to share those words with quite literally anyone that can draw breath.’

    This actually implies that our current technology does indeed change the game: the very ease of making writing available may tend to degrade it.

  • Alexander

    Lee, the point was made that technology does not change the INDIVIDUAL. You are making the point that technology changes the SOCIETY, and by influence, the individuals that then grow up IN that society. Two COMPLETELY different, complementary, and mostly correct points that are NOT mutually exclusive.

    That said, Isa, I think you are MOSTLY right. Mostly because my Blackberry, and google documents, and incorporating everything through a gmail account, sending myself reminder emails, ect, did in fact let me become a more organized person. Think of it like energy of activation in a chemical reaction. The reaction won’t quite happen on its own, due to , say (in my case) the laziness of the person. Different levels of lazy require different additions of energy (tech) to get over the hump and start actually DOING things. So it CAN help some people that WANT to change, but have a hard time doing so, change by making it easier. SOME people.

    That said, ISA, any thoughts of hosting your own online convention of this nature? Maybe some recorded speeches on the topics that interest you from people, build from there? I know I’d be interested (and willing to drop some money for access to the content)

  • Lee

    This is going to be my very last comment on this topic; I need to work.

    Alex, we probably all agree that technology can change a society, but I wouldn’t be so hasty about assuming that it can’t directly change an individual. There is a lot of discussion and at least a bit of scientific evidence that internet use may be reshaping some of our neural processes. The brain is plastic.

    To begin with, you may like to read the now classic – and often criticised – David Carr piece:

    Here are just a few of many reactions:

    And a piece with a balanced assessment of the evidence:

    In other words, the jury is still out, and I for one, wouldn’t like to make sweeping judgements at this point in time.

  • Isa

    @Alexander: ……Ooooooooo I’ve actually never considered doing that. Sounds like wicked fun, although I have no idea how one would go about it ^o^

  • alexander

    Easy peezy lemon squeezy.

    Get some of those same people to do their presentation for a webcam. If they had an integral powerpoint, overdub it. convince a few friends that would have loved to present a topic to make videos. Any topic that has lots of viewpoints, ask a lot of these same people, or other people that have useful opinions those questions, record all answers so you can stitch them together. post a couple really good videos to you tube, as well as one or two videos of highlights. Set up a website with some free samples of any other media or essays. Have a forum. Charge say 15 for a “con badge” which gets you a badge on rhe forum, access to congoers only forum sections, and access to all those other videos and media. Once a month have a live town hall forum on a subject, and post new videos as able. The 15 should be annual, contributors get afree year badge. call it onwancon. online writers and novelists con.