We've Been Here Before

We've Been Here BeforeHistory is full of tales of disruptive technologies, material shortages and the innovations they inspired. Most of these stories had happy endings, with technological change yielding remarkable benefits to humanity. But the current trajectory of print media, which seems to be hurtling toward a catastrophic ending, has dire implications for Western democracies. To set the stage for examining the sorry state of print media today, let's look at the consequences of shortages and technological revolutions over the centuries.

We'll start with a story with a happy ending. In the 17th century, the British used so much wood for extracting iron from ores, heating homes and building ships that there was a shortage in England, a "timber famine." This wood shortage set in motion an extraordinary chain reaction. First it spurred the use of coal. But many coal deposits were found deep underground, where flooding occurred, leading to the invention of steam engines to pump out the mines. Subsequent innovators improved the efficiency of steam engines, which provided the power for the Industrial Revolution, making goods more plentiful and, in the 19th century, driving the development of railroads. All this resulted from a shortage of wood.

But innovation doesn't always mean that things get better immediately, and sometimes they get worse for long periods of time. Consider the transition from bronze to iron tools and weapons in the early 12th century BC. This major technological breakthrough was driven by a period of chaos some call the ancient Dark Ages. As Mediterranean civilizations came under attack by the mysterious Sea Peoples, the long-distance trade routes supplying tin for making bronze collapsed. This forced smiths to learn to process minerals to extract iron. Thanks to their discoveries, the price of iron fell by a factor of 80,000. In the long run, iron tools and weapons were far superior to those from bronze, allowing the clearing of forests and settlement of northern Europe. But this was clearly a long, painful period for Mediterranean civilizations: The situation became so desperate that sacred bronze artifacts were melted down to make weapons.

On that note, let's return to the present day. The Internet was made possible by innovations over the past 50 years based on two materials: silicon for computer technology, and glass in the form of fibers for linking computers. In 1957, Robert Noyce realized it might be possible to form an entire electronic circuit, including transistors, resistors and capacitors, on the same silicon chip (he went on to help found Intel). In 1958, Texas Instrument's Jack Kilby became the first engineer to build an integrated circuit on a chip - the basis of today's personal computers. Then, in 1970, three Corning scientists produced the first high-purity glass fibers that allowed the transmission of light over long distances, opening the era of fiber-optic communication.

Used initially to replace copper telephone lines, these optical waveguides now carry a vast amount of information along the Internet. The intensity losses are so small that it is possible to transmit a signal over tens of miles before having to boost it using an amplifier. Today, 4 ounces of optical fiber carry more information than 33 tons of copper wire. Put another way, the information previously carried by multiple copper wires in an array more than 10 feet across can now be transmitted along a single optical fiber. In the late 1990s, 40 million kilometers of optical fiber were laid across the world annually. The current copper shortage is helping drive replacement by fiber optics, allowing copper cables to be recycled (since 2004, the metal's price has more than quadrupled, from under $1 per pound to more than $4 today, and theft is a growing problem).

Clearly, fiber optics are on the way up. But the same can't be said of the print media they're impacting. The growing use of fiber optics means more and more people can access news over the Internet. In addition, print newspapers are getting squeezed by the rising prices of paper and ink, which have become relatively scarce compared to the mid-20th century. And they may ultimately be stifled by another material shortage, as the skyrocketing price of oil makes any product delivered via gas-powered vehicles more expensive. Current forecasts from the U.S. government say the average price of oil could be $132.75 in 2009. Looking further ahead, trends suggest total world consumption will rise from 32.1 billion barrels in 2007 to 42 billion barrels in 2025, a 31 percent increase. Already, the high price of oil is forcing newspapers and magazines to raise newsstand and delivery prices, and it's also cutting retail traffic, meaning fewer sales overall.

Thanks to innovations in the past 50 years, information is distributed faster and more broadly than ever before, revolutionizing the way we get our news. And shortages of key materials like oil, copper, paper and ink are accelerating the process. That's good news for consumers, but not for newspapers and other print media. (On a personal note, at 68 years old, I stopped buying my favorite newspaper, The New York Times, and can only imagine the trend is even more pronounced among younger people.)

How can this be bad? The replacement of print by online newspapers means news publishers are facing financial disaster, because their advertising income is dropping at the same time they are delivering content for free. Simply put, no one has developed a way to make enough money from online newspapers.

I have never worked in the media industry, and all I know about advertising comes from what I see on a daily basis. I admit I don't have solutions to these problems. But the threat to print journalism is very worrying to me because, historically, newspapers have played a crucial role in our democratic form of government by keeping politicians and other powerful people honest. If online newspapers don't generate income, who will pay reporters, who typically work for print media, to research and write these stories? Over the years, reporters for print newspapers have uncovered scandals that the government would rather keep secret - to cite one obvious example, Woodward and Bernstein's investigation of Watergate for the Washington Post.

Print newspapers have correctly been called the Fourth Estate, meaning an unofficial but absolutely crucial part of a democracy. It would be catastrophic if there were no longer paid reporters keeping the feet of our elected officials to the fire. Is it possible that we have innovated ourselves out of a free press?
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