Digital Natives

November 13, 2006

Last week, John Naughton, journalist, technologist, Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University and author of A Brief History of the Future: the origins of the Internet, gave an electrifying address to the Society of Editors conference, in which he attacked their newspapers’ demonisation of youth and technology. It’s reprinted in full in The Observer, but here are some choice moments:

The novelist William Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’, and he’s as sharp as a razor. He also said: ‘The future is already here: it’s just not evenly distributed.’ As it happens, I think he’s right and I’m not sure it’s good news for those of us who work in the newspaper industry. Because if the future is already here, then the only inference one can draw is that our industry hasn’t been paying much attention to it.

‘The future is already here: it’s just not evenly distributed.’ – That should be shouted from the rooftops of the publishing world. Head over to the Mobileread forums or witness the huge take-up of Sony’s Reader, the first truly decent ebook reader, if you don’t believe it. People want this technology, and they’ll hack it themselves if good formats aren’t provided for them.

… in any other industry, the discovery that your potential future customers weren’t interested in buying your product would prompt an investigation into whether there was something wrong with the product. But what one hears – still – from the newspaper industry is that there’s something wrong with the customers. And what one finds, on closer examination, is that the industry seems determined either to insult or to ignore them.

Not quite any other industry. As the publishing industry continues to churn out so-called literary works, cookie-cutter thrillers and minor celeb memoirs between hard covers and relegates alternate forms – poetry, novellas, short stories and anything genuinely challenging – to an undersold hinterland, we hear much of literacy programmes, ‘quick reads’ promotions and price-slashing, but little examination of whether the industry itself is shutting out readers.

These kids have been socially conditioned in a universe that runs parallel to the one inhabited by most folks in the media business. They’ve been playing computer games of mind-blowing complexity forever. They’re resourceful, knowledgeable and natural users of computer and communications technology. They’re Digital Natives – accustomed to creating content of their own – and publishing it. (Remember the motto of YouTube: ‘Broadcast yourself!’)

Now look round the average British newsroom. How many hacks have a Flickr account or a MySpace profile? How many sub-editors have ever uploaded a video to YouTube? How many editors have used BitTorrent? (How many know what BitTorrent is?)

Substitute ‘publishing house’ for ‘newsroom’ and I think you can see where we’re going with this. The business of literature needs to fully engage with new platforms for writing and new opportunities for collaboration and promotion if there is not going to be a total generational divergence in literary culture. Just as newspapers are developing significant online presences as their paper sales fall, so publishers should be investigating new models for composition and acquisition.

You can read plenty more from John, our favourite kind of polymath, on his website and his blog.

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