The Financial Times kicked the new year off with a long editorial about ‘the media industry in an internet age’. The editorial discussed the spreading ripple effects of digital downloading on the music industry, and then turned its attention to newspapers, to note that people will always want information that is “researched, scripted and edited in the traditional way”.
“There will be more competition and uncertainty in the new world,” it concluded, “but some things will be the same”.
Sameness and difference. We humans seem to have incredible difficulty dealing with these concepts. We can’t seem to stop ourselves trying to pigeon-hole things into neat boxes. One thing is ‘revolutionary’, we say. But another thing is merely evolutionary; more of the same. We then argue endlessly about what should go into which category.
But the real world around us doesn’t recognise these distinctions. Every revolution has its elements of continuity. And most evolutionary change has increasingly ‘revolutionary’ effects as it accumulates over time.
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was a real revolution, for example. An entire social class and system of governance and administration was overthrown. A new way of running things came into being, with new people in power. For most of the ensuing century we were all in thrall to its knock-on effects. Yet, looking back, we can also see strong elements of continuity. The Soviet system revolved around more of the same. More industrialisation, more electrification, more wealth creation via the mass production of standardised units – just as Fordism did across the ideological divide. It was the sameness, not difference, that triumphed in the end.
Meanwhile the falling cost of computing power and our increasing ability to distribute digital information at low cost has been an evolutionary affair, starting over fifty years and trundling on ever since. There are some significant milestones, but it’s difficult to pinpoint any defining turning points; only symbolic markers such as Apple’s launch of the personal computer. The same trend towards ‘democratised information’ has simply continued, with accumulating effect.
The FT was forthcoming about these accumulating effects in its comments about the music industry. What bundles of value are made available (e.g. single songs or complete CDs), how much we pay for them, how we pay for them, how we access them, using what tools, and how we use the resulting value bundle – all of these things have changed.
Like the FT, the music industry can claim that things are still the same. We are still listening to music. Likewise, there will always be demand for well-researched, edited information. But if I was the FT’s owner, Pearson, I would still be quaking.
Real value-creating businesses do not revolve around abstractions like ‘music’ or ‘researched, edited information’. They revolve around the nitty-gritties: the exact bundle of value, how it is distributed, purchased and used, at what cost and for what revenues: all the things that are increasingly not the same. The market for quality information may well grow. Whether it grows within the framework of an institution like the FT is a very different matter indeed.
So why go on about this silly editorial? Because it sums up much of the debate surrounding buyer- or person-centric commerce. It’s often said that the printing press was one of the most revolutionary (there we go again) of all inventions because it democratised knowledge and learning. Well, ‘the information age’ is extending that democratisation to other forms and uses of information too: to the information that is used for planning, organisation, administration, coordination, communicating, transacting and so on. To the information that lies at the heart of every business, in other words.
The falling costs and increase ease of all these different aspects of information processing mean that increasingly, they are becoming tools in the hands of individuals instead of remaining a monopoly preserve of big institutions, as they once were.
Thanks to this accelerating, accumulating ‘evolution’ we are increasingly able to reconfigure the bundles of value, the means of distribution and access (and associated costs, revenues, payment mechanisms and other forms of value exchange such as information and attention trading) around the specific circumstances and needs of individuals.
Instead of starting with ‘a supply chain’ and then going looking for ‘a market’, we can start with an individual and his needs and wants, and then go looking for ways to address them. Because we have the information infrastructure to do so, at a viable cost.
Like the FT, you could insist that even so, “things will be the same”. Individuals will still want to eat, find shelter, stay healthy, move from place to place, and so on, just as they have always done. Just as they have always liked music, and valued quality information. Absolutely. But exactly how they do all these things is becoming increasingly person-centric.
Is this evolutionary or revolutionary? Is it more of the same? Or different? It doesn’t really matter which pigeon-hole you choose. What does matter is that the opportunity is real.
6 January, 2006