The Perils of Predictions: Future of Physical Media

SciBling Walt Crawford indulges himself in some prognosticating about the (non)demise of various physical means of delivering information: music, films, magazine, newspapers and books. He takes a cautious, conservative tack there, for the most part. I am supposed to be the wide-eyed digi-evangelists around here, but I was nodding along and, surprising to me, agreeing with much of what he wrote.
But I’d like to follow-up on this with some additional caveats and thoughts of my own. You may have to read Walt’s post first for the context, as this will be a direct riff off of him.
Regarded as some kind of “visionary” I often get asked, including in media interviews, to give these kinds of predictions, i.e., will medium A be “dead” in X years. I try to weasel out of those questions, and for a good reason.
We tend to laugh at soothsayers who got all their predictions wrong: the Nostradamuses and similar fakes. But we should remember that many people, including numerous science fiction writers, made many correct predictions. Where they tend to get it wrong is in assigning the exact dates – and then we laugh at them for that instead of admiring their power of vision.
So, when I get asked those prediction questions, I tend to answer in a different form. For instance, I may try to articulate ‘order’ instead of ‘timing’ and say something like: phase A will be followed by phase B will be followed by phase C, etc. This eliminates the need to give any kinds of numbers – in years – as to when any of those phases will happen. I am, just like everyone else, notoriously bad at predicting the rates of change, but the order of changes (and the identity of those changes) is easier to get right.
If pressed further, I may say that phase A will happen ‘pretty soon’ (which is ambigious on purpose and can mean anything between 10 months and 10 years), phase B we’ll see within our lifetimes (again purposefully ambiguous – anywhere between 10 and 100 years) and phase C will happen in the far future (even more ambiguos – may mean anything between 25 years and a 1000 years). That’s about as much precision as I am willing to offer.
So, I think that Walt unnecessarily hampered himself by imposing a strict number on his predictions. It is going to be much easier to measure if he was right about timing and thus ignore if he was right about substance.
Also, Walt’s choice of 5 years is extremely short. It is very easy to say that ‘nothing much will change in 5 years’ because that statement is basically correct. Sure, five years is incredibly long when one thinks about technological innovation and the rate of technological change – those things happen much faster. But on the other hand, social change does not happen that fast. And Walt is not talking about new inventions that will emerge on the market and become popular, but about disappearance of existing technologies, which is the domain of societal change, not technological.
First consideration: when a new technology in the media comes into the market and becomes popular, it first sweeps the tech-savvy, highly educated folks in big cities in the developed world. If you live in Tokyo, Amsterdam, San Francisco or London, you will be surrounded by such people and will tend to think that “everyone is now using this technology”. This ignores billions of people in the rural areas of developed countries as well as entire developing/undeveloped countries. I have a nagging feeling that Walt will agree with me on this point.
Second consideration: emergence of new and vanishing of old technologies also depends on how well it tacks onto the existing infrastructure and if the country has that infrastructure. For example, cell phone technology does not tack onto the landline phone network. In developed countries, the landline phone companies will try to slow down the process in order to save the utility of the network they are operating, thus they will start operating cell phone business but in a very customer-unfriendly and expensive manner. On the other hand, in a developing country with no landline phone infrastructure, the country can completely leap over that technology and jump straight into building (if they have money) the cell-phone infrastructure with no hindrance from any government-connected corporations. Thus, the landline phone technology will “die” faster in a country in which it was never really strong (e.g., the entire continent of Africa) than in developed countries in which people are used to landlines (and want to keep doing what they always did) and there are business forces that try to slow down the change.
Before you all go off-topic dissecting the above example, the take-home point of the paragraph was this: adoption of new and disappearance of old technology is a) going to occur at different rates in different geographies and b) will be contingent on a lot of factors, including local politics, business, finances, culture and, yes, climate. Some technologies are better adapted than others to extreme heat, cold, humidity or dust. Also, how much electricity does your gizmo require? Can you use it with a hand-crank or a couple of hamsters in running-wheels or does it require a stable and reliable electrical grid?
Third consideration: people differ in regard to adopting new technologies. Some people hungrily go after every new shiny thing, some forever cling to the ways they always used to do things (it’s surprising how many professional journalists and professional scientists – people one expects to be the most novelty-seeking, adventurous and flexible – are in this group!), and most are somewhere in-between, waiting to see what new technologies become indispensable (not just fads) before starting to use them (heck, it took me years before I got my first cell phone).
Even if a new technology completely sweeps the market, there will always be traditionalists, collectors and fans of the old tech. I do not see LPs or ham-radios (or even slide-rules or moleskins) ever going away: too many people just love those things, collect them, trade them, organize conferences about them, write academic papers about them, etc. In other words, even if most of the population in a given geography switches to a new technology, that technology cannot be pronounced dead as long as there are fan-clubs still using it.
Fourth consideration: really a variation of the Third. Producers of the technology, in face of societal changes in the use of that technology, adapt to a new niche. Horse breeding is still a multi-billion dollar business. If anything, horses are better and more expensive than ever in history. But the use of that technology is completely different. Nobody in the developed world (yes, go visit an undeveloped country and go to the rural areas – watch horses, or oxen or mules, plough the fields) is using horses for day-to-day transportation or agricultural work. Horses are now used by a different set of users for sport and leisure. While the technology called horses-as-transportation is dead, the technology horses is not. The technology has changed its use – hobby, rather than a need. Producers of that technology adapt to the new market.
So, yes, I agree with Walt that music CDs are not going to disappear in 5 years (how about in 100 years?). Their market share will diminish and it may become more of a hobby, but they will be there (more in some places than others, of course).
I agree with Walt that DVDs will still be around in 5 years, though I think Blue-Ray will go the way of Betamax: essentially dead.
And while some news-magazines like TIME and Newsweek will likely die, glossy photo-magazines probably will not, at least not very soon (i.e., not in 5 years):

The future (or what little is left of it) of print journalism is photojournalism. Text is already all online (and so are the audio and video clips). Long after the newspapers stop printing news on cheap paper, the glossy magazines dependent on high quality photography will keep getting printed: bridal gowns, real estate, sport, fishing and hunting magazines will thrive for quite a bit longer – they are selling glamour that Kindle and laptops are still incapable of reproducing as well as the dead-tree technology can. For a little while longer…

Also, our favourite beach/pool/airplane magazines, like The NewYorker, Atlantic and Harpers (high-quality long-form writing, not quite pleasant to read on an iPhone or laptop yet), still have a long way to go before dying….
Scientific journals will not die, but many will entirely move online and quit printing a dead-tree version (which will allow for experimentation on the format of the scientific paper).
Books: the Kindle is soooooo much an early prototype of the technology, we have a long way to go before we have something that new generations will adopt as ‘their’ technology (not even to mention the business aspects) . Our collective love of physical books is too strong and an entire generational shift will have to happen before the books die. Not to mention how much time it will need to digitize all the books. But once the new technology matures, it will, of course, change the way we read books, in a MacLuhanesque way.
As for newspapers, I have written about it a lot, and stated that metros will die, but hyper-local and super-global newspapers will survive – at least longer than 5 years – but will mostly be online anyway (you can print your copy – there is a “Print” button on your browser).
Now, you take a stab at predictions!

7 responses to “The Perils of Predictions: Future of Physical Media

  1. Kindle will be dead in 5 years.

  2. Just don’t mess with my New Yorker. And while my kindle has it’s uses, I sure hope I still have real books for the rest of my life (which isn’t going to be that long). You’ll have to pry a book out of my cold, dead fingers.
    However, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if the shopping mall disappeared.

  3. I was amazed to find out recently that Vinyl is still being made. My son’s band(s) have 7″ Vinyl of their material. Surprised me because they’re already on CD and myspace. Plus, who has LP players any more? Aside from my mother, that is. Apparently the old technology is back, at least in some niche.
    Print books, I think will be finding their way out sooner rather than later. (note careful non-specification of either time period). Some of us — of the generations that did not grow up with computer screens as a major source of our reading — have an aesthetic preference for books. I’m one such and have quite a few, as does my wife. But with several thousand between us, the sheer bulk is an issue. And that’s part of why I think paper books aren’t terribly long for this world. Those of us who like the paper versions, acquire so many of them that electronic versions become quite attractive if only for the sake of it being so much easier to move a thumb drive than 1000 books. And many folks just never have been in to that aesthetic. So we do have a kindle in the house.
    Kindle itself, may well go away in the next few years. But electronic books are, I’m confident, going to become more common.
    Shopping malls might go away. I realized some time ago that the thing that makes them viable is that the cost of gas to get there, vs. either a local store or online ordering, is being considered negligible. As gasoline gets more expensive, and/or trip costs get considered, many of those ‘drive a long way to save $0.30 on a toaster’ places will be in trouble.

  4. The important thing to keep in mind is that a given technology is likely to persist as long as it fills a need that is not also filled by something that most potential users find is demonstrably better. That’s why CDs will persist for the short to medium term, and why eight-track tapes have become extinct. So far nobody has come up with a physical medium that does what the CD does better than the CD does, but cassette tapes (and subsequently CDs themselves, once car CD players became common) were demonstrably better than eight-track tapes if you wanted to listen to pre-recorded music in your car.
    I don’t think shopping malls in general will go away anytime soon (although I am sure many existing malls will) because they fill a need. Sometimes there is no substitute for physically inspecting the merchandise, and for that you have to go to a store of some kind. As long as our society remains car-dependent, the shopping mall will be the best way to let large segments of the population inspect your merchandise, because that way many shop owners can benefit from being collocated. In this case the shopping mall displaced downtown areas in small and medium-sized cities because most people found it logistically easier to visit the mall; only in a few places in the US (New York, Chicago, Boston, and a few others–not coincidentally the least car-dependent cities in the country) did the idea of downtown as a shopping destination survive.
    What’s killing newspapers in this country (small town papers as well as big metro dailies) is that so many of them failed to adapt to changing technology. They could have gone for more in-depth reporting (something that TV news, by its nature, cannot do as easily), but management wasn’t willing to make the investment, and a handful of bloggers were. Newspapers will survive in other countries, and there will probably be a few holdouts in this country, but in the US too many of them are too far gone to save.
    Scientific journals: AGU has already announced that all of their journals will be entirely online by 2011, and they are no longer accepting new print subscriptions. There are some advantages to this move (mostly cost savings), but I’m not fully convinced that all of the bugs are worked out–I’ve already seen authors and journal editors make unreasonable assumptions about the readership (e.g., that all potential readers are able and willing to install software in order to view supplementary materials).

  5. I missed this post–unfortunately. Scattershot notes…
    I deliberately used the “five year” point because I was responding to overenthusiastic prognostication using that timeline. I’m not a futurist, but I’m nearly 100% sure that five years is far too short a threshold for any of these massive changes.
    If I was attempting to do my own projections, I think I’d disagree regarding Blu-ray (I think it will do well over the next couple of decades, although I don’t think it will overtake DVD–the Betamax equivalent is/was HD DVD, with the difference that Blu-ray is a superior technology, which VHS wasn’t except for recording time).
    I’d also suggest that many thousands of print magazines will be around for a long time (and the probable disappearance of most *print* STM journals isn’t relevant to this), because they work so well for what they do; newsmagazines represent an infinitesimal slice of the whole (three out of what’s probably a six-digit number).
    Newspapers? Many smaller ones are still doing fine, and it’s still a HUGE business–but one where big owners went too deeply in debt to buy overpriced properties. Still, I’d bet thousands (literally) of mostly-local print newspapers will still be around for some time to come.
    Otherwise, I don’t see big areas of disagreement with you (or with Eric Lund!). These are areas I’ve written about for years, mostly not in blogs, and I’m well aware of different rates of adoption and (equally important) transitions to long-term roles. (TV didn’t kill radio, but it changed it, as just one example.)
    I’m always amazed at the “but the kids don’t want print books” notion; any public library and any publisher with YA and kidlit lines could tell you there’s a real-world flaw in that reasoning. But never mind…

  6. This post sums it up quite well!

    Whenever anyone says “within 5 (or 10) years…” I just replace it with “possibly someday”. Partly because the time *always* seems to be 5 or 10 years, Which gets, ya know, suspicious.

    This is why I’ve started to get a little irritated with reports of what some “futurist” says. Not that I don’t admire their thoughts and extrapolations of where things could go – I actually do. I mean, sci and tech people seem to reach for advances when they hear them from scifi or other future-thinking people.

    But, I won’t bank on any individual statement – ever.

    In fact, even asking the question “will books be ‘dead’ in 5 years?” bothers me now. I mean, the right answer is “Who knows?” followed by much of what you state here. End of story.

    It’s akin to asking “what will humans evolve to look like in 10,000 years?” Actually, that one annoys me far more. Does anyone think that can really be answered with any authority? Unlike (I think) the fate of a sun, there are soooo many variables that could come into play, many of which we can’t even currently predict. Answering the question would be a guess, at best. On the other hand, you *could* offer up a cautious suite of possibilities – along with the caveat that some unforeseen factor could change everything.

    Yeah, so it’s the definitiveness that bothers me. It’s simplistic. And I’m very cool with “simple”. I like simple.
    But the future – especially the future of something affected by large numbers of variables – can’t be given a pat answer. And it almost seems like a waste of reporting space when that’s what it is given.

  7. I think you’re right to highlight the importance of social factors. I teach online sometimes (and really enjoy it) and have been told many times that “In the next five years all teaching will be online.” Actually I think someone told me that more than five years ago. I’m always surprised though by how much my students crave the face-to-face social experience of learning. They organize meet-ups, they come to chat with me in my office whenever they’re on campus and when they’re really perplexed with a course problem they often call me to discuss it or even drive into the city to meet with me or their classmates. The online environment facilitates many things that would be impossible face-to-face but there are also elements of the f-t-f experience that can’t be replicated online. And the degree and rate of change is dependent on the value that students, profs, and administrators place on the strengths built into each model. Things do change but I think predicting how people will adapt technologies for their own purposes and how quickly change happens is really difficult.