Posted by: structureofnews | January 8, 2013

The Electric Analogy


“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine – it is stranger than we can imagine.” – attributed to both Arthur Stanley Eddington and J.B.S. Haldane

No matter who said it, it’s a great quote that underscores the importance – or limitations – of imagination when it comes to thinking about the future.

Which popped into my mind as I was reading an interesting piece in the NYT this weekend; it was about social media, advertising sales, and the value of data – but that wasn’t what caught my eye. It was the couple of paragraphs at the end of the piece that made the connection between failure of imagination at the turn of the century (20th, that is), when electricity came into widespread use, and the possible futures now in front of us – the ones that perhaps will be clear in hindsight but that we just can’t understand yet.  But we’ll need to – and quickly.

Dave Morgan, a pioneer in Internet advertising and the founder of Simulmedia, an ad network for TV, points to the early years of electricity. In the late 19th century, most people associated the new industry with one extremely valuable service: light. That was what the marketplace understood. Electricity would displace kerosene and candles and become a giant of illumination. What these people missed was that electricity, far beyond light, was a platform for a host of new industries. Over the following years, entrepreneurs would come up with appliances — today we might call them “apps” — for vacuuming, laundry and eventually radio and television. Huge industries grew on the electricity platform. If you think of Apple in this context, it’s a $496 billion company that builds the latest generation of electricity apps.

Social networks, like them or not, are fast laying out a new grid of personal connections. Even if this matrix of humanity sputters in advertising and marketing, it’s bound to spawn new industries in consulting, education, collaborative design, market research, media and loads of products and services yet to be imagined.

Precisely.  And it’s just as true, broadly, for the digital world as it is for the social media world.  Even more so, perhaps.  As I’ve noted before, the digital age – computers, networks, the internet, social media, computing power, you name it – didn’t just upend our business models; it should be forcing a complete rethink of what we produce and how we produce it. That’s not to say we should abandon the ideas (or ideals) or journalism, or our public service mission; or even that stories will disappear. But it does mean that we should be thinking much more imaginatively about what we can and can’t do in this new age – and what our readers/users/audience want from us.

Or, as Google’s Richard Gingras noted in a recent speech, as reported by Poynter’s Craig Silverman:

“As long as one thinks transformationally, you limit your capabilities because you limit yourself,” he said. “… It doesn’t work. Worse than not working, it becomes self defeating. … We really do need to rethink everything.”

An example of that thinking is the lack of innovation when it comes to story pages online. “It stuns me that 15 years in we’re still seeing story architectures mimicking the traditional architecture of print,” he said.

Which certainly echoes the thinking behind structured journalism. It’s true that this is easier said than done.   But there have been some interesting experiments in new forms and structures of information (see Politifact, Homicide Watch, Muckety, for example) – just not all that many. Part of the reason for this are the newsroom structures and traditions that, in many ways, we’ve come to think of as core parts of our identity, rather than as historical accidents built around technological and other constraints of the times.  Starting from a fresh sheet of paper is a scary – and difficult – exercise, especially if you have to keep a legacy (and money-making) operation going.

But it shouldn’t just be fear of the future – or the search for a new business model – that should be driving that exercise; there should also be the hope and promise of new and better ways of fulfilling our mission – or even finding new missions that serve the public well.

Another electricity analogy, which I remember from former colleagues David Wessel and Bob Davis’s book, Prosperity, written back in the late 1990s.  Part of the book was an excellent analysis of the kinds of productivity gains we might see from the adoption of computers in the workplace, drawing on a 1990 study of the gains from the adoption of electricity a hundred years earlier.  (The subtitle of the book: The Coming Twenty-Year Boom and What It Means to You, was, in hindsight, a little too upbeat. But it’s a good book.)  Tim Hartford also referenced the study, titled “The Dynamo and the Computer,” by economic historian Paul David, in a later piece at Slate:

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.

Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

Similarly, we need to redesign not just the products we make, but the factory floor (newsroom and CMS) that makes them.  Otherwise we’re just bolting 21st-century digital tools onto early 20th-century processes, and we won’t escape the bounds of our imaginations.


  1. […] introduction of electricity a century ago is one that’s been much written about (including here).  Basically, it’s about how electricity was first seen as a cheaper, more stable substitute […]

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