Monthly Archives: December 2009

Argh! New technology is going to kill newspapers! In this week’s Christmas issue of The Economist I explain why people were worried about this — in 1845 — and what actually happened. The new technology in question was the telegraph, and newspapers co-opted it, rather than being destroyed by it. Will that also happen with the internet? As I have argued here previously, the internet is different because it does challenge the last-mile delivery of newspapers. (The telegraph was not a threat to papers in the end because although it delivered news faster, it could not distribute it to subscribers. The internet can do both.) So the internet may well kill newspapers; but newspapers are merely one business model for the delivery of news, and there is no reason why they should survive. The death of newspapers is not the same as the death of news. Already we are seeing new models emerge that do not depend on paper. Some publications will make the leap; many will not. If I was setting up a newspaper today I’d want it to look a lot like Bloomberg: global network of reporters, cash-cow terminals/financial information business to pay the bills, and (now) a consumer brand in the form of BusinessWeek. As this article argues, Bloomberg has a lot going for it, and it may prove to be the greatest competitor to The Economist in the medium term. Something for the next editor-in-chief to worry about, perhaps.


This week I talked about “An Edible History of Humanity” on The Forum, an excellent BBC World Service show which puts together three guests from entirely different fields to see what happens: in this case an Australian expert on fire, a Romanian Dadaist poet, and me. (You can hear the show here.) One of the guests is also invited to present a slightly silly “60 second idea” to improve the world, so I proposed making everyone over the age of 40 play video games. (You can hear that bit here.) After the show had been recorded, but before it aired, Charlie Brooker in The Guardian published a very good list of games that everyone should try, which is very much in the same vein; his choices were bang on. Anyway, back to the food. I recently contributed to the Spiked debate on the future of food and did a Q&A on the book for Mother Nature Network. I’m also taking part in an event in New York in January linked to the Silk Road exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ll be talking about the connections between food, trade and cultural exchange, along with a history professor and a chef. I’m the glue, I guess. I love the AMNH because of the planetarium, the whale, the dinosaur exhibits laid out in evolutionary order (take that, creationists), and because it does amazing things like this.

This week’s issue of The Economist has a lot of stuff about e-readers in it. There’s the cover story in Technology Quarterly about new display technologies (how can you make a low-power but full-colour screen) and there’s a Business story about the new joint venture between several American publishers to make a sort of iTunes/Hulu for magazine content. Neither of these pieces was written by me, though I edited both of them. My own take can be found in The World in 2010, in which I have two pieces on e-readers: one about the market in general, and a second about whether they can “save” newspapers. (Short answer: not in 2010.) I wrote these pieces in June and then spent the next six months updating them almost every week, because things were moving so fast. I now have more than just an academic/journalistic interest in the subject, having just been put in charge of The Economist‘s editorial content for mobile editions. It’s an exciting area: everything is up for grabs and it’s all moving very fast. Just like the web in 1994 or so.

A lot now hinges on what Apple does. I expect the tablet to be announced in January (upstaging everything at CES in the process) and to ship in April/May. It will have a 10-inch LCD touchscreen. It will have both a Wi-Fi-only and a Wi-Fi/cellular radio version (ie, a big iPod touch and a big iPhone). These versions will then be sold through the same channels as iPods and iPhones. Apple will add e-books/e-magazines to the iTunes Store, using the iTunes LP format (based on HTML, not Flash or EPUB or anything else). Developers will have three or four months to recode their apps for the larger screen, to ensure that tens of thousands of apps are available at launch. Lots of publishers will sign on, because Apple will offer more generous terms than Amazon.

These are all my best guesses; if you are in the mood for more predictions I recommend this post by Sarah Rotman Epps of Forrester, who is very good. Anyway, 2010 is going to be an even bigger year for e-readers than 2009 was. People have been asking me which one to buy for Christmas, and my answer is: none of them. The current crop will look obsolete by the end of January (there will be dozens of new models at CES). Your move, Apple.

My book was used to set three questions about “old social media” (ie, the telegraph) for Rick Sanchez of CNN on the “Not My Job” slot on “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me”. What was the single non-military application that Napoleon allowed the French telegraph network to be used for? Which object did a woman try to send by telegraph in the 1870s? And what kind of messages did the Atlantic cable of 1858 carry for the first few weeks after being connected? You can find out here. I was actually asked to suggest some questions myself by Peter Sagal, the host, but my suggestions weren’t funny enough (except for the sauerkraut). Oops — that’s one of the answers.

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