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In The Land Of The Blind...

By Jack Powers

Published: November 15, 1996

High tech publishing can be fun: new ideas come along every few days, old assumptions are constantly made obsolete, the barriers to entry keep coming down, and start-up companies selling new kinds of products and services sprout up like weeds. Young people and young businesses unencumbered by experience compete side-by-side with seasoned professionals and reputable organizations selling graphic communications products and services, and customers have a wide range of new choices of people, processes and suppliers.

With the Internet explosion, they have too many choices, I think. In the land of the blind, the proverb goes, the one-eyed man is king. There are too many blind visionaries talking too much trash to too many uninformed customers about too many things they don’t fully understand. Part of the problem is the newness of it all. Compared to the vast unwired majority, anybody who’s been on the Internet for more than six hours is an expert, and anybody who’s been on-line for more than a month is a consultant. Things are happening so fast that it’s becoming a full-time job of running just to keep up.

Part of the problem is a Gold Rush mentality. You can easily fill a room full of rubes with a pricey seminar titled "How to Make Money on the Internet," and even my mom has heard about the World Wide Web and knows that it’s a big, important thing.

And part of the problem is our natural human tendency to escape into the future, to imagine that the next invention will change everything and usher in a Golden Age of Peace and Prosperity where everyone is above average. Each new invention is touted as the killer application that makes all of human history up until this very moment obsolete.

This tendency may have more of a cultural foundation than we realize. At a conference in Madrid recently, a media guru told me that the Internet is very Anglo-Saxon, that it’s designed for people who are hypnotized by newness and by information. Spain, he said, has the wrong “latitude” for the Internet, having a more southern communitarian and personal style that chafes at the net’s impersonal northern rationalism. I recently came across an old Spanish invocation, “Que no haya novedad,” (“Let no new thing arise”) that crystallizes a common reaction to high tech, not just in Spain but around the world.

Here in the U.S., however, new is good and--even better--new is profitable. A frequent ad on drive time radio here in New York says, “Become an Internet consultant. Get in on this fast growing opportunity by calling for our free cassette tape and attending our free 90 minute seminar.” Then comes the part I love: “You need not have a computer or any computer experience to cash in on the Internet.” I sent for the cassette: it’s a telemarketing scheme to sell web classified ads from home.


How do we judge which experts know what they’re talking about and which are just making it up as they go along? Here’s a list of warning signs that the guru you’re talking to about new media may just be blowing smoke:


Anybody who repeats the cliche that “content is king” should be shoved out a window. Content is only one part of a successful publication, execution is often more important, and interactive publications are very much more than the sum of their text files “re-purposed” for the web.


Those folks who are absolutely sure that the Internet will soon replace every other form of communication should be locked in the same room with the opposite group who can’t imagine reading a web newspaper off a computer screen. High tech requires an open mind and a willingness to re-think old assumptions without locking off the possibility that you could be wrong.


No one can see too far into the future of the decentralized, multi-faceted, high tech-driven global Internet phenomenon, and it’s a good thing for market researchers that nobody ever compare’s last year’s projections with this year’s realities. We can work to understand the general trends of development, but the picture of tomorrow will always be fuzzy.


While it’s often quite helpful to reduce the world to a set of spreadsheetable formulas, getting the numbers is often a lot easier than understanding what they mean. Knowing how many CD-ROMs were sold last quarter may be interesting, but it’s much more important to know how many are in my customers’ offices. Beware the number-cruncher who uses statistics, in Churchill’s phrase, “the way a drunk uses a lampost, more for support than for illumination.”


New media people are famous for basing their hopes and dreams on the next technology generation: “wait until Pentiums are common, until digital video gets better, until cable modems are popular, until every home has a PC, until high definition TV, until virtual reality, then we’ll really be able to create something cool.” Working on projects based in the here and now is not as exciting, but it’s always more meaningful.\\


"Visionaries" at Amazon




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