Brave New (Writing) World: Too Big to Change?

Sometime back I was talking with some lawyers who subscribe to my employer’s publications and learned they all read them on iPhones and Blackberries. These were established high-powered lawyers — a really important market since my company’s publications are expensive — not the young people just out of school who are reputed to live by the text message.

Then the other day I saw a piece in The New York Times about how cell phones might be the next big thing globally, precisely because they’re small and cheap and therefore available to people in the developing countries who can’t begin to afford a computer and who live in areas that aren’t served by landlines.

What caught my eye in the Times story — the widespread use of the cell phone in the developing world is old news — were the companies in Africa that made it possible for people to use their phones to wire money to anyone else with a phone. After covering that point, the reporter then did what good reporters do — got another point of view:

I called Western Union, the Colorado-based money-transfer service, to ask if I could send money to a mobile phone. “Basically, we do not have that kind of option right now,” the agent told me.

I wonder if Western Union, which began as a telegraph company and managed to shift its focus as telephones replaced the telegraph for most uses, will survive this change. Because, as the reporter noted, someone has started up a U.S. version of the pay-by-phone service. Western Union probably needs to get into that business. If it can.

And maybe it can’t. Clay Shirky has an interesting piece up on his blog about the inability of complex institutions and societies to retool. Drawing on the work of Joseph Tainter, Shirky says:

When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. … When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

Right now we’re watching this process in a variety of industries — recorded music, newspapers, publishing generally, television. But those aren’t the only industries that are going to be affected by these changes.

Shirky goes on to talk about how companies are reacting to this change by trying to hold the current complex system in place, citing Murdoch’s efforts to get people to pay for the Wall Street Journal online as one example. But he doesn’t see that working for very long:

It’s tempting, at least for the people benefiting from the old complexity, to imagine that if things used to be complex, and they’re going to be complex, then everything can just stay complex in the meantime. That’s not how it works, however. … [W]hen the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

I don’t know if he’s right, but it feels right to me. The shift that we’re looking at is not an anarchistic revolution based on “information wants to be free;” it’s a change in how to do things in which some things that used to be very expensive to do are now very cheap. That makes some major investments of capital and resources essentially worthless.

It’s exciting, being here on the cusp of change, but it’s also scary as hell. There aren’t really any nice secure niches where one can ride out the current storm.

Here on Book View Café we’re trying to ride that wave of change, working both with the old system and the new, trying to keep current careers afloat while making sure we’re in position to continue them as the world shifts.

Clay Shirky makes his living writing and consulting about the changes he talks about in his blog post. That change is his living; it’s not ours. We’re storytellers, not change experts. So we might be a bit more nervous than he is about where things are going.

But I’m confident of one thing: Simple systems or complex, there will still be storytellers around. The human race needs us.

Meanwhile, you can always buy a book or feed Igor to help us survive the changing times.

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Nancy Jane’s novella, Changeling, is now being serialized on Book View Cafe. You can start at Chapter 1 here; a new chapter will be posted every Sunday. An e-book edition of the whole book will soon be available for a modest price.

And you can still find 51 flash fictions and a few other stories on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf.

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Brave New (Writing) World: Too Big to Change? — 2 Comments

  1. Western Union, maybe not.

    But I do believe you can send money to mobile phones in Africa, and that other companies are starting to do the same.

    In developed countries, maybe there isn’t such a need, because there’s an established banking system that is ‘safe.’ In parts of Africa etc, the banks are only in the urban areas and not the rural areas. So there’s Western Union, maybe, and then the hawaladars.

  2. You’re right that the cell phone money-sending business — and, in fact, the wiring money business in general — is not aimed at people with bank accounts and credit cards. But there are a lot of people in the US without bank accounts who use Western Union to wire money. There are also many similar services that immigrants use to send money back home.

    I see the use of cell phones to do this as the kind of change that Western Union needs to adapt to, if it’s going to survive in the money-sending world, just as my company needs to understand that people read its publications on phones, not in print (even though old fogies like me still think in terms of the print publication with its nice layout and mix of stories).

    In fact, when I start thinking about using phones to send money, I start wondering about them replacing credit cards, etc. — meaning they may eventually displace another industry. I think in Japan you can use phones to buy things at vending machines, for example. In a world in which technology is constantly changing — and creative people are coming up with new ways to use the new things — I don’t think any established business model is safe. Clinging to them will not change that.