The Future Is A Foreign Country

Earlier this month I gave a talk at the ‘Science in the 21st Century’ meeting at the Perimeter Institute in Ontario and a couple of days later at the ALPSP International Conference 2008. They were basically the same talk, though one was tailored for scientists and the other for publishers. Some people were kind enough to say that they enjoyed it, so I’m posting my notes and slides here. This isn’t exactly what I said because I tend to deviate a bit from my script, but the gist of it is the same.

The individual slides are embedded below, but if you want the full set then here they are: PDF (23MB, no animation), Apple Keynote (25MB, animated).

My name is Timo Hannay and I work for Nature Publishing Group, where I am publishing director for That means I have business responsibility for our online activities. I’m therefore a publisher of sorts, but I’m also a neurophysiologist and a web geek. On top of that, I’m an Englishman with a Polish mother, a Scottish father, a Japanese wife and a Finnish first name, though some people refer to me as Tim O’Hannay and think I’m Irish. Other people sometimes ask me, if you were born in England to a Polish mother and a Scottish father, why do you have a Finnish name? And the best I can do is to refer them to the aforementioned Polish mother and Scottish father because that was their decision not mine.

One result of all this is that my life has in many ways been one long series of cultural misunderstandings and conflicts. And these have influenced the perspective that I want to share with you today. It’s a personal perspective — one that I’m sure isn’t shared by all my colleagues at Nature let alone all other publishers. But I’m the one standing at this podium so it’s my perspective you’re going to hear.

The title of my talk, ‘The Future Is a Foreign Country’ is derived from two quotes, both celebrated though in different circles. The opening lines of LP Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between famously declare:

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

And William Gibson, cyber-punk science-fiction author and hero to the Silicon Valley set, made a related point when he wrote:

“The future is here. It just not evenly distributed yet.”

The first of these quotes is beloved of literary types, and perhaps appropriately dwells on the past. The other trips off the tongues of technophiles, and speaks of our future. To me they both do a nice job of toying with our concepts of time by talking about the past and the future as if they exist now, in the present – notice that they both use the present tense. And they mess with our intuitive notions of time and space by talking about other times as if they are in fact different places.

But as well as being amusingly mind-bending they also contain some nuggets of truth:

  • Some people are further ahead than others, and do in a sense live in the future.
  • Our past and our (perceived) future do both influence the present. And as change accelerates, this effect is accentuated.
  • Our attitudes to newfangled things are closely aligned with our attitudes to other types of ‘foreignness’.

So I’d like to use this metaphor of the future as a foreign country to to describe what I believe to be an appropriate mindset for publishers seeking a place for themselves in this foreign land called the 21st Century.

I am not a digital native – I didn’t grow up with the internet or email or the web – and I don’t work for an organisation that was born online – Nature was first published in 1869. But I don’t think this matters. At least, it matters a lot less than our response when confronted by profound novelty or change.

Let me try to explain this attitude by telling about a time when I was not a metaphorical digital migrant as I am today, but a literal geographical migrant.

Almost 20 years ago, when I was a student on my obligatory post-graduation round-the-world trip, almost by accident I found myself in Japan. Though my father was an airline pilot and I had been able to travel all around Europe, North America and certain parts of Africa, none of that prepared me for what I encountered in Japan.

Tokyo was a vast concrete jungle.

The atmosphere to me felt like somewhere between Disneyland and Bladerunner.

There were odd fusions and juxtapositions of old and new…

..of Orient and Occident.

And some wonderfully unconventional people.

It was a land full of paradoxes and contradictions: Automatically opening doors were everywhere. Even the taxi doors opened and closed by themselves, and if you try to touch them the drivers get rather upset.

But when you sat down for a meal at a restaurant you were expected to cook the food yourself.

Also, Japanese workers put in unbelievably long hours. They even have a word, ‘karoshi’, that means ‘death from overwork’. (And there’s a tip here for would-be migrants: beware the country where the concept of death from overwork is so pervasive that it has been reduced to a three-syllable word, like the word ‘holiday’ in English.) As a result, many Japanese are chronically sleep-deprived and napping on trains is endemic.

These are typical scenes on the morning train, or on the last train home at 1am. Yet despite the fact that Japanese people worked so hard, the cash machines closed promptly at 6pm.

And on top of this, Japan had the craziest writing system I had ever come across. (It’s based on Chinese. And early European travellers to China believed the Chinese language not to be the true language of communication between the people there. Seeing these impenetrable glyphs, they concluded that it was a fake, contrived language invented with the sole purpose of confusing and confounding foreign visitors. And I know just how they felt.)

Broadly speaking, there are two reactions to this kind of Alice-in-Wonderland strangeness. Most foreigners in Japan, certainly at the time I was there, retreated into expat enclaves, seeking out their own kind, with whom they would trade imported David Attenborough tapes for jars of Marmite. That was by far the most common response, and probably the most rational one. But it wasn’t my response.

My response was one of complete and willing submission to this strangeness. I thought it was brilliant, wonderful, beautiful, inspiring and full of possibility – not least the possibility that I might one day come to understand some of it a bit better than I did back then. In short, I attempted to go native.

As I stand here before you, it will not have escaped your notice that there are limits to how Japanese I can be. But there are few limits to how Japanese I can think and behave. Instead of staying there a few months as I originally intended, I lived there for over 5 years. I made friends, I learned the language, I watched the television, I read the newspapers, and I married a Japanese.

I’m not sure that this was an entirely rational response, but I am sure that I had better time – and had more impact – than most of my Western expat peers.

But enough of my youthful peregrinations. Our subject today is the internet and what it means for publishers.

The online world, too, is often presented as – and feels like – another place, a foreign land. I’ve already mentioned the metaphor of digital natives (mostly our kids) and digital migrants (most of us).

As with any distant country, there are new languages. Here is a piece of computer code – actually a rather famous piece that’s deliberately obscure even to computer scientists (kind of Joyce for techno-geeks). It’s written in a language called C and outputs 12 verses of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. Of course, to most of us it is utterly alien.

That’s content intended for a computer, but changes are happening in human language too. Here is a piece of text reportedly submitted by a 13-year-old British schoolgirl when her teacher asked the class to write about their holiday. It’s quite fun, so I hope you don’t mind if we read along together.

My summer holidays were a complete waste of time.

Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face.

I love New York, it’s great.

But my parents were so worried because of September 11 that they decided to stay in Scotland and spend two weeks up north.

Up north, what you see is what you get – nothing.

I was extremely bored in the middle of nowhere.

Nothing but sheep and mountains.

At any rate, my parents were happy – they said it could be worse, and that they were happy with the peace and quiet.

I don’t think so!

I wanted to go home as soon as possible, to see my mates again.

Today I came back to school.

I feel very saintly because I have done all my homework.

Now it’s business as usual …

I’m not sure what happened after this, but I suspect when the author of this essay saw the grade from her teacher she felt less than saintly. I, however, think that this deserves to be recognised as one of the great school essays of all time. If it had been written in ‘normal’ English it would be of little interest, and we certainly wouldn’t be talking about it here today. But more importantly to me, the transcription into the language of ‘texting’ is full of imagination and humour. I therefore see it as something of a work of art.

As well as new languages, we also see new currencies and forms of payment – such as PayPal or the Linden Dollar.

Perhaps more importantly, we see new or unfamiliar units of social currency – for example, patches in open-source software, and links – as well as related things like comments and votes and pokes – as the social currencies of the web. In fact these should be less alien to academic organisations since they are related to the units of social currency in research – new discoveries and citations.

As I experienced in Japan, we see unfamiliar combinations: Less than a generation ago, who would have ever imagined that the phone would one day get together with the camera.

As well as convergence, we see divergence, with general purpose devices like the PC losing some of their peripherals and versatility to become specialist devices like game machines.

Perhaps above all, we see the emergence of new cultural norms. As the writer and digital activist Cory Doctorow has pointed out, if email had been designed by lawyers instead of engineers, the default behaviour of our software would not be to quote our correspondents’ earlier words when we hit the ‘Reply’ or – especially – ‘Forward’ buttons. But this act of mass copyright infringement also happens to be extremely convenient, and by the time it came to the attention of anyone who might care about the legal implications, it was already baked into the technology and the culture.

Even we publishers, who depend on copyright so profoundly and are therefore so defensive of it, would no doubt roll our eyes in frustration if we were forced to use legally watertight, copyright-clean, DMCA-approved piece of software that prevented us from quoting other people’s emails unless we had secured the necessary permissions. Remember that the next time you’re trying to work out why your customers don’t seem to respect copyright anymore.

(This observation would normally lead me to bang on about how copyright law is well and truly broken in the digital age, and that “copyright” isn’t even a good name for it anymore. But that’s another rant, so I’ll spare you it here.)

Here is another photograph from Japan. It was taken by highly successful venture capitalist and World of Warcraft player called Joi Ito. But even though it was taken in Japan, in this case I suspect that all of you will see things both foreign and familiar. But which is which will depend on your perspective. It’s a bit like one of those HSBC ads at the airport: Older people will see the man reading his book as familiar and the boy reading his phone as foreign. Younger people will see it the other way around. The economic importance of this picture stems from the fact that the net present value of the future cash flows from the guy who’s reading his book is a lot less than that of the guy who’s reading his phone.

But that doesn’t explain the disorientation that I think publishers feel. What explains that is a phrase I’ve already used a couple of times: “He’s reading his phone.” Think about how alien that sounds. Think about how somebody from just half a generation ago would try to parse that sentence: “He’s reading his phone.” It sounds like something out of a Haruki Murakami novel. You might as well tell a record company executive that people have started listening to their cameras. And in fact, they have.

Welcome to the future.

One of the benefits of coming face to face with unfamiliar things, whether new or foreign, is that they force us to reassess our own assumptions and prejudices.

Some of you may be familiar with a TV programme called The Curious Tribe. It followed the experiences of these men, brought from Papua New Guinea – a land of ostentatious tattoos, painful-looking body piercings and highly decorative penis gourds – to London – which, come to think of it, is pretty much the same except without the penis gourds.

The enigmatic title of this programme hints at [its] genius. As we settle down to watch, we prepare ourselves for a funny but touching tale of simple hunter-gatherers trying to get by in the industrialised world. In fact, what we get are a series of piercing comments and questions about the way we have arranged our lives and our society. How can it be, for example, that when our parents get too frail to look after themselves we pack them off to an impersonal care home and visit them only once in a blue moon. Such a thing would never be tolerated in New Guinea. In the words of Austin Powers, “Ouch! Very ouch!”

As with foreignness, so with new technologies. Confronted by the fact that people are ‘reading their phones’, publishers are forced to reconsider what they do and how they do it. As with the language of SMS texting that we looked at earlier, the technologies we create don’t merely bend to our will, they also spring back and provoke us to change our own behaviour.

One of my most infamous statements, made not-very-many years ago, was that texting would die out because people wouldn’t tolerate for long the need to type with their thumbs. So much for that prediction.

In fact, the practice and art of texting has moved so far that in Japan the ‘keitai’ (‘mobile phone’) novel is already mainstream. Designed not only to be read on mobile screens, but also often composed on mobile phones, these novels tend to feature unusually compact prose and dialogue. But that doesn’t make them unpopular. Last year, 5 of the top 10 bestselling novels in Japan were keitai novels. I think this forces trade publishers to think again about the 100,000-word, 300 page novel as the standard unit of purchase and consumption. And in fact we already know that it’s possible to pack enlightenment and entertainment into far smaller packages, including, famously, Hemingway’s six-word novel, beautifully sad – and reputedly written to win a bar-room bet.

[At this point I held up a Kindle.]

Another example from books, at least for me, is Amazon’s Kindle. I got mine last month in California. I expected it to be flawed and a lot less satisfying than a print book. But it turned out that I was only half right.

It is indeed deeply flawed. The buttons and other interface elements are a usability disaster. With keyboard just where you want to put your thumbs, it’s optimised for typing (which you do 1% of the time) rather than reading (which is what the device is really for). For this reason, and also because it looks like a BlackBerry with a growth hormone problem, it feels like a work gadget rather than a leisure one. These all detract from the experience.

But – and here’s what astounded me as a confirmed fan of the paperback – despite all these shortcomings the Kindle is already better than a printed book. It’s not only because of the most obvious point – that the Kindle can contain the content any number of books, and so makes the paperback feel as pointless as a DVD player that can play only one movie. It’s also because you don’t have to hold it open, and because the reading page is flat rather than curved. Neither of these problems used to bother me about print books because I took them for granted. But I don’t anymore.

To be clear, my point is not whether the Kindle really is better than the printed book – that’s just my opinion. My point is that the existence of this new device forced me to reassess something I love – something that I’ve been using since before I can remember and that seemed close to flawless – and I found it wanting.

How have publishers responded to the fact that they now find themselves in this foreign land called the Internet? As with expatriates in Japan, I think that prominent sentiments have included ignorance and denial.

After listening to one of my recent talks about newfangled things in science communication, a middle-aged publisher came up to me and declared, “I’m glad I’m old”. What a depressing sentiment – right up there with “I’m glad I don’t have a passport”. Whilst I understand such techno-pessimism, and believe that it actually has some value (mainly to keep in check techno-optimists like me), I don’t have any sympathy for it.

As important as sentiment within the industry are perceptions outside it. If you ask the average scientist about how publishers have responded to the rise of the internet and all that it entails – or at least, if you ask a scientist who actually thinks at all about publishers, which would make them not an average scientist at all – then they are likely to mention something like this.

The sad truth is that the public face of publishers’ engagement with the web is too often things like PRISM. I won’t dwell long on this, I’ll only say that I think it was misguided and about as likely to work as me declaring to the Japanese nation that the only way for them to save their cultural integrity was for them to all, if they would be so very kind, to start speaking English. Sometimes we’ve got to look at which way the tide is flowing and recognise that we’re only flotsam.

This doesn’t mean rolling over whenever something threatens us. But it does mean approaching it with proper understanding and respect, and not coming over as perpetually hectoring, reactionary and self-serving. In short, be like Tim O’Reilly, not Bill O’Reilly.

Open access isn’t the slam-dunk inevitability that some of its proponents think, but neither is it the an apocalypse for publishing or for scholarship. Whether its a threat or an opportunity depends on how we respond to it, but it’s certainly a reality and it isn’t going away. In my view PRISM has done only harm – mostly to publishing.

But I don’t want to come over all doom and gloom. It seems to me that things are getting better – especially over the last two years or so, I’ve observed what feels like something of a sea-change across publishing, including areas like trade that have been lagging behind. That’s just as well: Unlike expats in Japan, biding our time is not an option. We can’t swap David Attenborough tapes and jars of Marmite until our employer decides to send us home again. Our journey to the future is a one-way trip – we either go native or risk becoming marginalised.

And in the interests of balance I should point out, too, that researchers themselves are not much better. Here’s a quote from Jim Hendler, a computer scientist and one of the founders of the Semantic Web.

While scientists have gloried in the disruptive effect that the Web is having on publishers and libraries, with many fields strongly pushing open publication models, we are much more resistant to letting it be a disruptive force in the practice of our disciplines.

I think this is exactly right. I’ve also said so to scientists and have yet to hear any of them disagree.

Look also at the behaviour of scientists, who demonstrate a lack of enthusiasm that borders on the insurrection when their funders ask them to do things that are of minimal effort to them personally but of significant potential benefit to the research community as a whole.

[I described here how reluctant scientists seem to be to deposit their publications in open repositories, even when encouraged by their funders and assisted by publishers.]

So it’s not a battle (if that’s the right word) between progressive scientists and reactionary publishers – there are examples of both types of people in both camps (not mention among librarians, societies and so on). My main point, however, is that it’s up to publishers to put our own house in order.

As with my journey to Japan, my personal response to all this internet-enabled weirdness was one of almost unadulterated joy. The fact that it is disrupting publishing is, I think, the single most important reason that I’ve come into the industry. How boring the last 550 years since Gutenberg have been. Until now.

In fact, I believe that it’s not enough to merely accept change, you have to promote it. Naturally, I believe that NPG is one such organisation, but there are certainly others besides.

I think the most fundamental requirement for taking a progressive stance is to interpret your mission broadly.

[I commented here about this 1869 mission statement still holding true, and the fact that it doesn’t limit us to journal publishing. In fact Nature Publishing Group isn’t just a journal publisher, it’s a scientific communication company.]

Here are some examples of our web initiatives that stem from this liberal interpretation of our mission (in roughly chronological order):

  • Connotea (pure functionality, no content)
  • Nature Podcast (and video &ndash we’re becoming a broadcaster)
  • Blogs/ Postgenomic
  • Nature Network
  • Second Nature
  • Nature Precedings
  • Scintilla
  • Wikis
  • Databases (applying established editorial and publishing skills in a new context)
  • Science Foo Camp

All of these projects are – or at least have been – experimental. We didn’t launch them in the confident belief that “If we build it, they will come”, but rather “If we don’t build it, we won’t know”. We are acting something like scientists, using these projects to probe this thing called the web that we are trying to understand. In this context, failure is not merely acceptable, it’s inevitable – we try to avoid it by doing a good job, not by avoiding difficult challenges.

Implicit in this range of projects is, I think, a view that our shift from print-based to online distribution is only the first step on a much longer path. In doing these things we are doing some of the things traditionally done by – and therefore we are competing with – broadcasters and software companies. If that doesn’t scare you then you don’t fully understand what’s going on. But if you avoid the fight then you’ve lost it by default.

It’s almost as hard for a publisher to become a technology company as it is for me to become Japanese. But if we’re in the business of information – and we are – then mastering information technology isn’t an optional extra, it’s central to our future. In taking on this challenge, I think we would do well to apply the mindset that has served successful real-world immigrants so well:

  • Learn the language(s)
  • Respect new cultural norms (where possible, don’t sue your customers)
  • Suppress any sense of entitlement (onus is on us, “Only the paranoid survive” – Andy Grove)
  • Work hard
  • Listen, learn, adapt

This may sound like a humble posture, and in some ways it is. But as for real-world migrants this humility will be our strength.

And what are the most important changes we will have to embrace? Here are my candidates:

There are threats here, for sure. But there are even more opportunities for those who adopt the right mindset.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. And I, for one, am glad.


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