Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”

If you get most of your news and information from the web, or create online media, this is an important video to watch.

“What we’re seeing is a passing of the torch, from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones.” — Eli Pariser

Good morning, Frankfurt

Visited Germany last week to meet with one of our new manufacturing partners. The itinerary: fly out of Boston on Sunday, arrive in Frankfurt on Monday and take care of business, fly back to Boston the next morning.

Thanks to jet lag, I was up before the sun on Tuesday, so I took a walk along the River Main with my camera.

A view of downtown Frankfurt from the Holbeinsteg pedestrian bridge:
Frankfurt skyline
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Pre-industrial Song bookmakers: a study in decentralized economics

The Literary Collection of Zhu Xi

The Literary Collection of Zhu Xi, courtesy of the National Palace Museum

Found at Taipei’s National Palace Museum last month, tucked away inside an exhibition on art and culture from the Southern Song period of Chinese history, was this infocard on the economics of bookmaking:

In addition to printing, marketing also played a role in the wide circulation of books and in the transmission and fusion of culture. In the Southern Song dynasty, cultural pursuits were highly valued. Printing, by either official or private bookshops who served the role of both producer and seller, was formally encouraged. The officially issued books, which were laid out in large format, printed with quality ink and carefully collated, were modeled by private bookshops.

This got me thinking again about business models for information distribution. In the pre-industrial era of the Song dynasty, the costs of production — as well as revenue generated from sales — were decentralized across a great many independently owned operations. Decentralization, in this case, also fueled innovation: the world’s first movable type system was invented by Bi Shēng, a commoner and artisan who developed the technology between 1041 and 1048.

With the Industrial Revolution came a cost incentive for businesses to engage in centralized mass-production of goods. The decentralized and distributed economies of previous eras gave way to monopolies over the tech and tools of production.

Fast forward 200 years, and the pendulum is swinging back. The cost of digitally reproducing and transmitting information is now pennies on the dollar compared to physical copies. It is now possible for anyone* to set up shop online and act as both producer and seller, as Song bookmakers of the past once did.

*Anyone with access, that is — a topic for another day.

A thought experiment on the e-reader and tablet ecosystem

Imagine a world in which WordPress, Drupal, MovableType, Plone, Joomla and all other open-source publishing platforms never existed.

In this hypothetical world, media producers have a choice of 2-3 major proprietary platforms with which they must share either a third of their revenue or invest a significant amount of time and money to get their content onto — content which then would reside solely in a walled garden that readers must pay a premium to access.

It’s almost unthinkable now, nearly a decade after the start of the blogging revolution, but this is the world that is quickly taking shape in the emerging tablet and e-reader market.

If Rupert Murdoch’s iPad-only newspaper and Richard Branson’s rival magazine are indicative of what’s to come, we’re looking at a future media landscape that hearkens back to the days of newspaper monopolies: high financial barriers to entry for independent publishers, fewer choices for readers, and a massive slow-down for innovation and creative approaches.

Tim Berners-Lee warns us of this backward-facing trend in his recent call to action:

The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. It is better to build a Web app that will also run on smartphone browsers, and the techniques for doing so are getting better all the time.

Some people may think that closed worlds are just fine. The worlds are easy to use and may seem to give those people what they want. But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates. If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth.

Thankfully, community projects like Calibre and OpenInkpot are hard at work bringing open-source alternatives to the table. But they’re going to need more momentum and manpower to overtake the proprietary juggernauts currently dominating the field.

I’m curious as to what the tipping point was for projects like WordPress and Drupal to really take off in terms of exponential community growth and user adoption. (Can anyone in the know chime in here?) Today’s tablet and e-reader ecosystem is in critical need of a similar disruption.