Great Restructuring III: The war over change

The emerging war we’re seeing now is over change. I’m not talking about the post-9/11 resurgence of debate over Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations – though that’s certainly a front in this war. Instead, I’m talking about the clash over change within civilizations, the attempt by some to forestall its inevitability, and their attacks on those who enable, predict, and embrace change as if any of those actions cause change. It’s actually rather fatuous to set up a dispute between those who want and don’t want change, those who think change is good or bad. Change is inexorable. The question is not what you think about it but what you do about it.

I’m seeing this personally as attacks on me get more emotional for merely predicting the obvious: the fall of newspapers. Predicting it doesn’t cause it, but sometimes you’d think that’s the case. There’s a lot of attempted messenger murder going on.

I see it in a boggling dispatch from Brigadoon in today’s Observer (the Guardian in Sunday suit) in which Henry Porter goes so far over the edge to liken Google to “something that is delinquent and sociopathic, perhaps the character of a nightmarish 11-year-old,” calling it a moral menace. “Despite its diversification, Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time.” He doesn’t want to see that in the link economy, Google does precisely the opposite: adding value with its links. If you think those links are so awful, then reject them.

Frighteningly, that’s what’s almost being suggested in another quarter of the Guardian (where, full disclosure, I write, consult, and podcast). But true to my American ways, I must issue my declaration of independence from this line of thinking: “The Guardian Media Group has asked the Government to examine Google News and other content aggregators, claiming they contribute nothing to British journalism.” Pass the aspirin. This from the same organization that wants its content in the fabric of the web via its API – the ultimate expression of the link economy and of thinking distributed, thinking like Google, that is? (As with all thing media in the UK, this has something to do with the BBC.)

The Guardian should know that something is amiss when it finds itself in harmony with the commander of the death star, Rupert Murdoch. To whom I’ll say, fine, cut yourself off from Google search and see how long that hunger strike lasts. The assumption here is that Google owes them something because it caused change and change is hurting them. No, Google exploited change. It did what these publishers should have done. They didn’t. They’re losing and they’re looking for someone to blame – other than themselves.

But let’s move – please – beyond newspapers and Google. Look at Europe last week, at the silly if larcenous protestors and their futile fight against globalism – we’re all connected now; that’s the essence of our change – and their insipid signs: screw the consumer, death to capitalism, end currency.

Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post Friday that Obama and the Americans represent too much change in Europe.

“They don’t want more excitement. . . . The creative destruction of the business-oriented political economies of the Anglo-Americans is too violent and unstable, too brutal and unpredictable. Better to regulate more tightly the international capitalists who can cause havoc through their inventiveness. Better to be less rich than less secure.

Americans are creators of turmoil. Europeans see them the way the ancient Greeks saw the Athenians, as “incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so.”

Surely, they wish, they can legislate and regulate the change away.

To me, the lesson of our current turmoil is that change is inevitable – indeed, I argued here and here that it is millennial shift we are experiencing, our passage to a new age – and that resisting that change, trying to delay or protect against it, is what is leading to the death of great swaths of the newspaper, music, auto, and retail industries and their imminent replacements by new players who understood, embraced, and exploited change. There’s the difference. There’s the war. Rather than complaining about and resisting change, the wise course seems clear:

1. Recognize the inevitability of this change.
2. Try to understand it. (That’s why I wrote the book and think another may be in order.)
3. Rush toward the change; seek it out, embrace it.
4. Find the opportunities in the change and exploit them.
5. Recognize, too, the turmoil, uncertainty, and risk of the change and try to soften the impact but don’t let that stop you from 1-4.

  • Thanks for timely words Jeff. I woke up to Observer on my London doorstep this morning and headed straight for the op-ed pages where I found Porter’s piece on Google. Struggling what to think of it, with 50-odd pages to go of your book that I picked up in Union Sq, NY a couple of weeks ago, I was gasping for a Jarvis retort,

    After a wonderful day at the Convention on Modern Liberty last month, in part initiated by Henry Porter, his comment in today’s paper found little sympathy with me.

    All the best

  • Jeff, I know we rarely agree when it comes to our assessment of all things Google, but here I’m with you that the article is a screed.

  • Andy Freeman

    The “don’t contribute anything” argument is basically that folks are satisfied with headlines and don’t click through to the articles themselves.

    That says something about the relative value of headlines and articles.

  • I’m wondering whose keeping score. Has anyone taken the top 100 newspaper properties in the world from let’s say 2005, and then keep a monthly running tab showing which have been sold, which are in some form or bankruptcy and which have folded up their shop. My guess is, this would be an interesting graphic, and possibly quite dynamic.

  • Stanley David

    I’m agree with your 5 solutions how to dealing with this changing.

  • Eric Gauvin

    Printed media provide reading pleasure, which so far the internet does not. The internet provides great satisfaction in searching for small pieces of information that we assemble into a personalized, larger meaningful whole, but it does not come close to providing the complex, well-written fully-formed ideas available in printed form.

    Anyone who can fill the void of reading pleasure will take the internet to the next level. In the future I hope we spend a lot less time searching, searching, searching…

  • Andy Freeman

    > but it does not come close to providing the complex, well-written fully-formed ideas available in printed form.

    Yes. Newspapers have style, but accuracy matters more in news.

    The narrative form is well-suited to fiction and propaganda.

    > Anyone who can fill the void of reading pleasure will take the internet to the next level. In the future I hope we spend a lot less time searching, searching, searching…

    While I agree, the “truth” problem remains.

  • Steve – UK

    I don’t usually find myself defending the Guardian – but surely Jeff you must realise that the views of contributors don’t necessarily reflect the opinion of the Guardian board or editors. Or are you suggesting newspapers shouldn’t run pieces by people with an opposing view to the leader page? Pass the aspirin indeed

    • I’m not saying anyone shouldn’t run anything. i’m just saying his head was up his…. how does one say that in the uk, arse?

  • Jeff,

    I found myself inadvertently on Murdoch’s side when Fortune called me for a comment. Now I’m a kook, used as the kicker for the article. Clarifying my own thoughts for those who’ve followed the link:

    Just to clarify, I’m not one of those who think Google is the death of newspapers. Quite the contrary, I emphasized to reporter Dirk Smillie that search engines are the default home page for people using the Internet, and as such, direct a lot of traffic to us. That traffic is important. I don’t believe Google is “stealing” our content. And I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek about “turning off” to Google. We don’t matter much to Google. I was musing about what might happen if all news sites turned off for a week. What would people think? Would they survive? (Maybe.) I wasn’t suggesting we block Google from spidering our content. That wouldn’t test the “what if digital news went dark” hypothesis. In any case, none of that will fix our own broken business model.

    Google organizes the Web. Something needs to do that. My concern is that they’re effectively a monopoly player in that space. Oh sure, there’s Yahoo, but who “Yahoos” information on the Web? I understand and recognize the revolutionary nature of the link economy, but I’m concerned that it’s Google which defines relevance via their algorithms. (Yes, I know that they’re leveraging what people have chosen to make relevant, but they’re still applying their own secret sauce, which is why we all game it with SEO efforts) and that puts the rest of us in a very subservient position.

    I wonder if there isn’t another way in which the Web can be organized and relevance gained that reduces the influence of Google and returns some of the value that Google is reaping for the rest of us? I predict that someday there will be and all this talk of Google’s dominance will be history.

    • Andy Freeman

      > I wonder if there isn’t another way in which the Web can be organized and relevance gained


      > that reduces the influence of Google

      It’s unclear if Google will develop it.

      > and returns some of the value that Google is reaping


      Google is reaping the value of the organization that Google produces. Content producers are reaping the value of what they produce. It turns out that organization is often a lot more valuable than content….

      > for the rest of us?

      Why shouldn’t value go to the producer?

  • OOps. i meant Forbes.

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