The current era of human civilisation is often described as the information age, but I would argue that we’ve crossed the Rubicon into what could be better described as the data age. At face value that may seem a trivial distinction, but then so much of our lives has been trivialised into data points to be traded on the online market. Google has evolved from everyone’s favourite search engine into one of the world’s technology giants on the strength of its business model of gathering data about our online behaviour – our interests, habits, proclivities and naughties – and packaging that data as a commodity to be sold to its clients, the advertisers and marketers of this world. Facebook was built on a similar philosophy, and in case you didn’t know, although you technically ‘own’ all the data they have on you, they can legally do whatever they want with it – photos, comments, the works; it’s in their terms and conditions.
Of course, the B2B publishing business has evolved to keep pace with the social revolution that is the Internet, by offering an ever expanding menu of online dishes: banner ads, mass e-mailers, podcasts, videos, even pop-up ads (bleugh!) have become de rigueur. Most publishers in the engineering sector still supplement their diet with the tried and trusted staple of print, but even that has changed as recent years have seen some venerable publications migrate to a digital-only model. We in the publishing business are inclined to view our platter of offerings as a selection of ingredients for our clients to concoct their flavour of the week, but perhaps there’s some value in changing our way of thinking to viewing our intellectual property as a currency rather than a medium (or more accurately a menu of media).
If we think in those terms, one could say that mass print media was the information currency of the 20th century, insofar as it was the dominant method of propagating news and opinions. I’m no historian, but looking back in time I would guess the Egyptian empire at its height was the first time the medium of information – papyrus – evolved into a currency of sorts. After all, the Egyptian government in those days was prepared to pay more for a book – any book, so I’m led to believe – than its weight in gold, such was its insatiable thirst for knowledge. Later, paper money would even become the preferred denomination of currency itself, a trend that persists to this day.
Seeing as my mental meanderings have brought me back to modern times, why do people put more stock in the dollar than any other currency in the world? Because it’s seen as reliable and relatively stable – it’s trusted. In the context of the recent proliferation of fake news – and let’s be honest, anybody can say anything they want on social media and some fool will buy it – the publishing industry is still, for the most part, regarded as a touchstone for trustworthy information. May it always be that way.
Should we not then consider looking at this changing of the guard, from print to digital publishing, as a market-driven evolution to a new form of currency, just as we have moved from physical cash to digital banking to Bitcoin? Whereas print was to publishing as notes were to currency – in the sense that once it leaves your hands there’s no accounting for who possesses it or what they do with it – digital marketers hold us to account for the number of page views, the quantity of clicks, the amount of time spent on a page, and various other metrics they believe define the value of our work.
The value, or rather the worth, of the information we as publishers purvey is no longer in the eye of the beholder. It is increasingly becoming a commodity with a market value that places a greater emphasis on the actioned than the actionable, that covets the quantifiable over the qualitative, or informative. We can argue until we’re blue in the face that those raw numbers don’t represent the true value of our content, but marketers are more and more insisting that they do. And who are we to argue? It is they who pay the bills after all.
The recent trend of electronic component distributors taking over established publications (as Arrow Electronics did when it bought United Technical Publishing and ICC Media) signals their intent to profit from this new currency, just as banks profit from every transaction that passes through their hands. The question is not so much whether the publishing industry is able to adapt to the ensuing paradigm shift, but whether the information consumers – the B2B engineering sector at large – will trust them the way they do us.