Have We Learned Nothing?

Recently, David Worlock wrote an essay lovely in cadence and bewildering in spacing around punctuation that put a positive spin on Plan S, saying it “may be doing everyone a favour” to push publishers to close the “journals door” and into other great things like AI and other trendy new businesses.

As I leafed through my vanishingly slim local newspaper, fretting over the typos, the torpid writing, and the cheap printing, I wondered — have we learned nothing?

Worlock is a writer and thinker I generally admire, but here he appears to be parroting the general laissez-faire “technology uber alles” mentality that allowed the decline of local news coverage, local reporting, and local accountability while giving technocrats control of information that they have proven they are not capable of handling. When newspapers were being taken down the wrong strategic path by their supposed friends, consultants and disruptors were telling newspapers to find ways to automate the writing of their stories, go “more local,” find new ways to make money, and transform their businesses, staffs, and systems for the digital age. Content — journalism, news, and opinion — was never something they said to focus on.

Yet, the newspapers that survived and remained profitable did exactly the opposite — they invested in reporting, they invested in opinion writers, they sought out hot stories, and they broke news regularly, all while preserving an equivalent blend of subscription and advertising dollars.

Amazon was founded on the shipping and distribution of content, and continues to invest in original books, movies, and television shows. Netflix and HBO are thriving with original content.

Content is worth investing in, and is the main thing that most information technologies traffic in. Content is the foundation of technology, society, and culture. Netflix is nothing without its content. Amazon is nothing without the music, movies, books, and shows it purveys. Twitter is mostly about linking to outside reporting and content.

The problem isn’t that scholarly publishers need to pivot away from content, in my view. It’s that they need to pivot away from Silicon Valley illusions and delusions, which have made a small number of people very rich at the expense of large swaths of society and long-term damage to our cultural, political, and social lives and institutions.

We shouldn’t pivot away from content, but into it, because that is how we’ll deepen relationships with readers, broaden the scope of what is known, refine our understanding of the world, and support thinkers and researchers more effectively.

Or we can pivot to reprocessed information built on unreliable and black box technologies that are inherently insecure and exploitable. Don’t the more important aspects of life come from stories, news, and reliable information?

Have we learned nothing?