Friday, February 22, 2008

History Man

As we live in the midst of some of the cleverest technology developed by man, I’d like to take you back on a short journey through time. I’d like to do this because I’m one of those people who believe that we’re more of a product of technical evolution rather than radical revolution and that there is a considerable amount that we can learn from the past.

So, let me take you back to the Abbey of the Middle Ages, where monks of the Benedictine and other orders toiled in the dim lights of their Scriptoriums.

These were the broadcast playout centres of their Age. Much of the Western world was controlled by the Church and the reason for this was simple – the Church had a monopoly on the written word.

Copying the scriptures and religious texts was a highly specialised and time consuming process and, although lay scribes were employed in time, they weren’t allowed to copy whole texts. In order to guard the texts a distributed network of scribes was used. Of course, distribution of the content was largely reserved for abbeys, churches and cathedrals and the people had to go to the content, it could not yet get to them.

This remained so for centuries, throughout the Middle Ages, not only in Christendom, but in the highly educated and far more secular Arab world, texts were tightly controlled.

Then came a turning point. At sometime in the Middle Ages someone had the bright idea of carving texts into wood and then placing a paper on top and rubbing charcoal over it to produce a facsimilie. Naturally, this was a time consuming process and in Mainz, in the German Rhine Valley, a merchant – or what we would today call a serial entrepreneur - called Johannes Gutenburg was toiling away in a workshop to find a better solution to the problem of replicating texts.

To give you an idea of what kind of mind Gutenburg had one of his most recent schemes was to sell mirrors to pilgrims so that they could capture the benign rays from artefacts and taken them home to share with friends and family. And we all though that crazy business schemes started with the dot com era…

Gutenburg was also backed by a venture capitalist, one Johannes Fust. He managed this because he’d had a big idea. Rather than try to get backing to build his technology, he’d changed his business plan. Rather than concentrate on the technology of the printing press, now he was going to replicate the Bible. Content, as ever, was king…

There is a further twist to this story that will be familiar to any of you that have worked with the venture capital world. Just as Gutenburg was becoming successful Fust called in his loans with interest. The case went to Court and Fust won.

Initially the invention of the press was seen as a means of spreading the Word, but as more people were able to read and write the scriptures alternatives views of Christianity appeared which were to culminate in the rise of Lutherianism and the reform of the Church. Although the power of the Church didn’t disappear overnight it did open up the world to new, different and often agnostic ways of thinking.

Even though the invention of the printing press was a seminal moment in history, the cost of printing, and especially the cost of distribution was still high and required tremendous capital.

Not surprisingly, the first newspapers – or pamphlets and periodicals as they were then called – appeard in Germany in the 15th Century. Some things haven’t changed, they were often tabloid in their coverage even then. Early reports covered the gruesome tails of a a Transylvanian prince, Count Dracul, who has remained a popular subject ever since.

The first newspaper we can recognise as such was the London Gazette, first published in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. The first US newspaper, the Publick Occurences was published in Boston in 1690. However, this was unofficial and was suppressed and soon went out of business.

By the end of the War of Independence there were forty three newspaper in print in the thirteen states, by 1814 there were 346. The rise of the ‘penny press’ in the 1830 brought about the rise of mass market newspapers.

Along with this came advertising as a way of making supplementary income in a highly competitive market place.

By the time of the Civil War there were an astounding 11,000 newspapers in the US alone. And as tv, cable and satellite channels multiply daily these days it’s easy to see the analogy brought along by the advent of narrowcasting.

But most newspapers were small, local affairs, they narrowcast to their community. Indeed, that has remained the case all over the world. There are very few true national newspapers, and even fewer global newspapers because they have to appeal to a common interest. But those businessmen that managed to build chains of newspapers or achieve widespread distribution became wealthy and built some of the greatest dynasties this country has known. William Randolph Hearts being, perhaps the most famous of all of them.

The history of magazines to some extent mirrors that of newspapers, with two of the earliest examples, Tatler and The Spectator surviving to this day.

Still, the cost of producing and distributing magazines was high and magazines remained generalist in their theme.

Our story now switches to the West Coast and to the garage where on April Fool’s Day 1976 a new revolution was unleashed. Well, unleashed may not be the best word… it was shown at The Homebrew Computer Club in Paolo Alto. Within five years Apple computers were a Fortune 500 company and they had revolutionised the world of printing.

All of a sudden desktop computer were a reality and the cost of producing magazines collapsed. Moreover the ease of producing a magazine was considerably enhanced.
This, along with the introduction of lithography and low cost low run printing saw the rise of highly specialist magazines catering to all kinds of enthusiasts.

The distribution of content was no longer geographically based, with mass interest generalist publications, they were now focused on targeted demographics

The arrival of specialist magazines has again changed the way content is perceived – last week in a single newsagent in New York City I counted over four hundred different magazines and newspapers for sale.

There are magazines for pig farmers and chiropractitioners, for hanglide enthusiasts and backgammon players. The stage was set for the dawn of the narrowcasting age.

In the meantime radio and then television were established and quickly found their way into the nation’s hearts and homes.

It’s strange to think that the industry this show represents hardly existed fifty years ago.
It’s even stranger when you consider that the technology was invented by an Utah farm boy and a sickly failed Scottish entrepreneur and inventor.

Philo Farnsworth and John Logie Baird are two examples of why none of us here today, whatever our current roles in this industry, can ever been complacent about the marvellous technology we use.

Indeed, I would argue that we’re now just entering into the second era of the television age. The era of narrowcasting.

No comments: