Daring, risky innovation by a famously conservative — notoriously hidebound — public service institution leaves old print ‘legacy’ media trailing far in its wake



ANDERS NILSEN on the power of graphic storytelling, New York Times, 18 October 2015 - postgutenberg@gmail.com

This set of drawings by Anders Nilsen — scanned from crumpled newsprint found lining a box of crockery — was an answer with a touch of genius to The New York Times’s invitation to artists in 2015 to convey ‘the power of graphic storytelling in one comic panel.’ What might that talking horse symbolise today? Could it be conventional — legacy — media’s post-Gutenberg future, with which they seemingly cannot strike up any sort of conversation?

Believing the impossible gets easier with practice — say, half an hour a day, the White Queen advises Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. Here’s a mental barbell for anyone else attempting that exercise: the U.S. Navy, a military institution as renowned for being rigidly hierarchical, compartmentalised and tradition-bound as its counterparts in practically every country, has been implementing — not merely experimenting with — radically progressive new operating methods driven by new technology. 

Some of us waiting impatiently for an equivalent leap in publishing — or even the smallest experimental prototype with a hint of forward-thinking — could almost weep with envy, reading a thrilling account of nautical innovations in the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly. These are grounded in thinking about a much broader and deeper managerial revolution, as the title conveys: ‘At Work, Expertise is Falling Out of Favor.’ 

Possibly the most startling effect of reading the piece is realising how rare it has become to learn about large-scale innovation strictly for the public good, untainted by the profit motive. It is now hard to remember the last time a technological transformation with implications for nearly everyone was not about making some obscenely lucky 15 year-old a billionaire in three years, and greedy for even greater wealth and power.

A sample of the revelations from that tale of a sea change: 

… Built in 2014 from 30 million cans’ worth of Alcoa aluminum, Littoral Combat Ship 10, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, rides high in the water on three separate hulls and is powered like a jet ski—that is, by water-breathing jets instead of propellers. … Unlike the older ships now gliding past—guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, amphibious transports—the littoral combat ship was built on the concept of “modularity.” There’s a voluminous hollow in the ship’s belly, and its insides can be swapped out in port, allowing it to set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.

The ship’s most futuristic aspect, though, is its crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.

… On most Navy ships, only a boatswain’s mate—the oldest of the Navy’s 60-odd occupations—would handle the ropes, which can quickly remove a finger or foot. But none of the three sailors heaving on the Giffords’s ropes is a line-handling professional. One is an information-systems technician. The second is a gunner’s mate. And the third is a chef. “We wear a lot of hats here,” Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Damontrae Butler says. After the ropes are put away, he reports to the ship’s galley, picks up a basting brush, and starts readying a tray of garlic bread for the oven.

Two boatswain’s mates are on hand, but only to instruct and oversee—and they too wear lots of hats, between them: fire-team leader, search-and-rescue swimmer, crane operator, deck patroller, helicopter-salvage coordinator.

… The operative concept is “minimal manning.” On the bridge, five crew members do the jobs usually done by 12, thanks to high-tech display screens and the ship’s several thousand remote sensors. And belowdecks, once-distinct engineering roles—electrician’s mate, engine man, machinist, gas-turbine technician—fall to the same handful of sailors.

… Minimal manning—and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists—isn’t a particularly nautical concept. Indeed, it will sound familiar to anyone in an organization who’s been asked to “do more with less”—which, these days, seems to be just about everyone.

… The Navy, curiously, has pushed the idea forward with an abandon unseen anywhere on land …

This¯article by Jerry Useem does not pretend that giving the methods of old sea dogs a makeover has been error-free. One innovation that has already come a cropper:

… [T]he modular “plug and fight” configuration was not panning out as hoped. Converting a ship from sub-hunter to minesweeper or minesweeper to surface combatant, it turned out, was a logistical nightmare. Variants of all three “mission packages” had to be stocked at far-flung ports; an extra detachment of 20-plus sailors had to stand ready to embark with each. More to the point, in order to enable quick mastery by generalists, the technologies on each had to be user-friendly—which they were not. So in 2016 the concept of interchangeability was scuttled for a “one ship, one mission” approach, in which the extra 20-plus sailors became permanent crew members.

Mistakes on the road to genuine progress are unavoidable. Time for another invocation of T. S. Eliot. His gloomy opinion of lilac-breeding featured here last year was nonsense, to any botanist, but this observation by him has rarely been stated better:  ‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’ 

Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders ( updated, 25.5.2019 ). The keiretsu-cooperative is a kind of platform cooperative — an idea getting closer to takeoff 


+Newspaper readers on a poultry farm near Kirchzell, ROY EALES postgutenberg@gmail.com

Like these two on an egg farm in Germany last November, there will be keen newspaper-readers — in some medium — for a few more years, yet. The question for the future is, can we organise a better way of owning and running newspapers and media sites — one better suited to a democracy than conventional corporate ownership? Photograph: Roy Eales

The purpose of this entry on post-Gutenberg is to reverse the unexplained disappearance from search engines of the headline and link for the site’s very first post, which launched p-G on 5 September 2011. 

Not for the first time, someone appears to have gone to special trouble to make it impossible to find a p-G post in Google or Bing by typing its title into a search box. Adding the site’s name as an additional search term only yields indirect routes to it. Because Google, certainly, does not explain its methods, it is impossible to identify the culprit — inadvertent technical errors or active tampering by human algorithm-tweakers. Human tamperers can hide behind algorithms, which leave no fingerprints.

Riding the most recent wave of interest in ‘platform cooperatives,’ which began in 2016, this month’s print edition of Wired spotlights online workers’ cooperatives — through which operators in the gig (freelance) economy can jointly own and control a website from which they market their services and get paid. This is a radical improvement on working through platforms owned by, say, a classic employment agency for housecleaners — or a cleaning service — cutting fat commissions out of workers’ incomes in exchange for setting up and running the website, and acting as an intermediary.

The writer of the Wired piece, Clive Thompson, pinpoints the solution to the most aggravating obstacle to launching a platform cooperative — which is, getting it organised and ready-to-roll and, in that helpful cliché from physics, achieving critical mass. This did not present a problem for Up & Go, the successful platform cooperative for housecleaners that he singles out for special mention, because ‘the workers were already organised.’

For precisely that reason, post-Gutenberg’s original proposal of a keirestu-cooperative — a collaborative internet platform for newspapers and other media — did away with the idea of starting from scratch. It recommended beginning with an existing newspaper, with its established core of readers and commenters. As a post revisiting this subject last year explained:

These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

Here — except for its old introduction — is the original text of the first entry on post-Gutenberg that, at present, cannot easily be found through an internet search:

Newspaper and other print media sites to which I have returned several times a day – or week, depending on what has been happening in my life – have had two things in common:

  • Unusually sharp and entertaining comments sections in site segments dedicated to topics that interest me.
  • A group of stimulating, well-informed debaters among the regular commenters, who often enter into extended wrangles – sometimes, not just with each other, but with the writer of an article.

Unfortunately, commenters tend to come and go unpredictably, then vanish altogether. And I have to start looking for a new equivalent of an online coffee shop.

But what if commenters were given some incentive to keep commenting on a particular site – for years at a time? Two years ago, thinking about what would make contributing posts irresistible to me, my conclusion was: money, and the feeling that I was helping to build a semi-permanent family of debaters. Without some form of payment – or the possibility of being paid in the future – posting frequently on newspaper sites becomes suspiciously like wasting time. I have found it hard to justify time spent commenting, even though joining online discussions has deepened and enlivened my understanding of all sorts of topics.


In January of last year, I outlined a scheme that a newspaper could run as an experiment in sharing ownership of a part of its site with reader-commenters. In a future entry in this blog, I will describe the reactions of particular publishing organisations to which I sent a link for my proposal. There were, broadly, five reasons for their reluctance to try it out:

  • ‘Too new’ – the scheme diverges too far from their ideas about the future evolution of media.
  • Protectionism. The mistaken belief that the scheme would entail paying commenters at the same rates as professional writers and journalists. That is not what the proposal says at all. The idea is that the arrangement would work very broadly in the way insurance does: people contributing more or less equal sums into a pool of money from which disbursements would be made in accordance with merit and need.
  • Semantics. Interpreting the scheme as ‘socialism’. There is no precise counterpart for the proposed arrangement – certainly not in publishing, as far as I know. But to convey the idea of shared ownership I used the word ‘cooperative’—which unfortunately spells ‘hippie’ utopianism or bankrupt socialist idealism to many people. It says something else entirely to me. For nearly 20 years, I have been a member of a rural electricity cooperative founded 75 years ago by a group of farmers – after the local power company refused to put them on its network. This organisation runs so beautifully that my electricity bills have always been a small fraction of sums I have paid for the identical usage patterns in other places.
  • Fear of losing power. Most publishers of the print era cannot give up the idea of journalists and editors performing on a stage for readers – the audience down in the pit, which is where they would like them to stay. They cannot accept that technology has made it realistic for readers to want – indeed, expect – to share the stage with them, even if only in walk-on parts, in most cases, at the start.
  • Pessimism. Publishers cannot conceive of making a bigger pie – that is, expanding revenue, and even earning profits, with luck – through sharing ownership with reader-commenters. They can only imagine being forced to accept smaller slices of an unchanged or shrunken pie.


Here is a summary of what a test of a jointly owned site would involve for publishers and reader-commenters at the beginning:

As this is a scheme for helping print media to adapt for the arrival of the 5th Estate, a publisher would have to initiate the experiment, inviting readers to become part of it.

The publisher would set a price for a subscription-cum-stake in the jointly owned site called, say, the Forum. Just one stake per reader. Site visitors who do not buy a subscription-stake would not be shut out from reading articles and discussions but could not, of course, share in any future profits.

The publisher would develop the software tools and infrastructure for the experiment – to collect and record subscription-stakes; run elections and referendums; develop apps, links to social networking sites, and so on – and, if the test site makes a profit from subscriptions and advertising, distribute it to stakeholders.

Both the publisher and readers would nominate a few reader-stakeholders for membership of the Forum’s (say,) eleven-member management board. All reader-stakeholders would elect six of these as their representatives. The other five board members would be appointees of the publisher from within its own executive and editorial ranks.

As noted above, the arrangement would work in roughly the way insurance does. Reader-stakeholders would pay more or less equal sums into a pool of cash. Payments from that pool would be made according to certain criteria. How would classes of subscription-stakes be established? Who would set the criteria? These – and all other rules for the site’s operation – would be proposed by the management board and then voted into existence by subscriber-stakeholders.

So setting rule-making in motion would be the first task of the management board, and the first job for reader-stakeholders after that would be choosing from among alternative rules proposed to them.

A publisher would not have to finance the experiment alone. A newspaper could, for instance, share the costs and administrative burden with a book publisher. Their partnership would resemble a Japanese keiretsu – or arrangement between companies with common or interlocked business interests.

The rationale for this scheme for shared ownership is set out in more detail here.

Any takers? Careful suggestions for refining and improving the experiment would be indescribably welcome, and will be given proper credit in a future post on this site.

Correspondence to postgutenberg@gmail.com, please.

Big Brother takes an alarming step past watching us — and shows why Tim Berners-Lee’s plan for resurrecting his open web needs all our support

lone burnt tree postgutenberg@gmail.com

+++ the burnt and the saved postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

What if, instead of the too-familiar, twee rituals tied to Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Eve, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Halloween, among other traditions for marking the onset of wintry blackness, we each had to construct our own tributes to ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ — from the intersection of things seen in real life and well-grounded fears haunting our sleep? Pictures above and below: charred landscape, after a wildfire in August

Reader, the slogan of our day — Big Brother is Watching You — is already out of date. On Friday the 19th of October, we heard him speak — to chilling effect. Not every website can make such a claim and what is that, if not a world-beating scoop?

How did BB sound? Not at all as you’d expect. Likeable enough for us to be tempted to fill in an application form immediately, if he were put up for adoption. His voice was as  fresh as a newly-opened petal, and endearing — possibly because he was only a proxy for the real BB, acting as his special agent; or because he has drunk from the fountain of eternal youth.

The shock of listening to his voicemail message had been preceded by emails from A Certain Newspaper — its digital version, which we will call ACN.com here — that we are reluctant to name before its managers have had a chance to reconsider what they are doing and dial back their officiousness. The opening lines of its message on the first day of this month read, in part:


Thank you for being a regular user of [ ACN.com ].

Our records suggest that your [ ACN.com ] account is being used to copy a substantial amount of text from [ ACN.com ]. You can make copies of [ ACN.com ] content for your own personal use, but please don’t copy and paste articles for the benefit of other people. If you are copying for your sole benefit, then we apologise for emailing you. … [ continued for several sentences with variations on this theme.

We paid close attention to BB’s choice of language — that tricky use of the word ‘copy’ in a way that reminded us of Steven Poole’s splendid evisceration of weaselly language with a hidden agenda in Unspeak: Words are Weapons. Anyone knows that downloading is the accepted word for saving articles to an electronic device to read later — just as you might programme your videorecorder to capture installments of TV dramas for binge-watching when you can. That is all we are doing in our daily cut-and-paste exercises on ACN’s site, but calling it ‘copying’ was intended to make us feel guilty, as if it were tantamount to proof of being on the low road to despicable copyright infringement.

The message was unsigned and, unlike the Microsoft Word popup that says, ‘You have placed a large amount of text on the clipboard,’ was not accompanied by any equivalent of a friendly query about how we would like that clip to be treated. We ignored it with an incredulous ‘Phew!’ and forgot all about it. Precisely a week later, what should come sailing into our inbox but ‘Reminder: Referencing and sharing [ ACN.com ] articles’. Again, with an inaudible derisive laugh, we tossed it into our mental circular file reserved for mail from lunatics and turned to our next task — so, were all but struck dumb by the follow-up voicemail, ten days later, demanding that we telephone ACN.com‘s head office immediately ‘about a problem with your account’.

When we reached BB, he did not accept that without a smidgen of evidence of our making a mint or, indeed, the tiniest unit of currency from replicating and redistributing his newspaper’s articles — because we were doing nothing of the kind — his question and ACN’s emails were downright intrusive. How could even ‘copying’ be automatically equivalent to copyright violation? we asked, and we said that our reasons for shifting text from his paper’s site onto our machines were none of his business. We were too angry to draw the parallel to videorecording made here, in the paragraph before last. He had begun to annoy us by repeating, as if he were stone deaf — even after we began to roar at him in thousands** of decibels — ’Yes, but I need to ask you about this because, at this point, you have copied close to half a million characters.’

So what! we said — ‘You don’t need to ask your readers that question and wouldn’t have any right to object if we were downloading ten times that number. Please stop saying need!’ When there were only print newspapers, we pointed out, no emissary from one ever leapt around a corner shouting, Stop, fiend! — as we were using that day’s edition to soak up kitchen grease we did not want clogging our drains/ make paper planes/ stuff under draughty doors/ soak for papier-mâché/ line the floor to house-train a puppy/ crumple for fire-starter, … or even clip bits of, to copy at a photocopying machine and slip into letters to our one hundred dearest friends and colleagues.

‘You see,’ BB continued imperturbably, in his dulcet tones, ‘we have special software tools, and we have evidence of your doing this.’

Ah, yes. Those tools. Consider the terms of trade in this age of Big Data gathering. It isn’t just the Big Tech bunch — Facebook, Google, Twitter, and co. — that can and do collect and minutely analyse information about everything we do, not just on their sites, but with tracking cookies set to shadow us everywhere on the net. Not just to serve us better, as they claim, but to manipulate us. Almost every sort of business is at it. Newspapers — including ACN — that routinely warn their readers about this loss of privacy, and about sites milking us like data cows, paying nothing for the privilege, deserve to have their feet held to the fire for hypocrisy.

Post-Gutenberg made this point nearly five years ago, at the height of the Snowden surveillance brouhaha — in an entry linked to freely available information mysteriously overlooked by big names in print media:  ‘When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?’  One source we cited there, The Daily Banter, noted: ‘[T]hese publications, while taking on the pious, sanctimonious role of privacy purists, are using multiple third party resources to collect detailed information about nearly every visitor who reads one of the various posts about how the use of digital technology should be a completely private affair. … [ … continues …].’

What disturbs us about the telephone conversation forced on us by BB is far more than the particular argument we had with him. It’s that it is a foretaste of what lies ahead in the ever-expanding control of internet users; of the coercive possibilities that can follow from the wholesale misconstruing and misrepresentation of our most innocent habits and pastimes. BB has graduated from unremitting surveillance to:

  • demanding that we make personal contact with our monitors
  • insisting that we submit to interrogation by these monitors, and account for our actions
  • cross-questioning us about our answers, and about why we say that the obtuse interpretations by monitors — inadvertently or tactically — of what we are doing are mistaken

In 2014 we quoted an artist friend, Marzia Faggin, about her dystopic joke that does not seem all that funny now, about doing her grocery shopping defensively, to avert being ‘dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.’ 

This year, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has been quoted everywhere about doing what he can to resurrect the dream-come-true of the early decades of the internet, in whose creation he collaborated with other pioneers — the dream of the net as a liberator of people, an open space free of centralised control and gatekeepers. Recent headlines have read: ‘Tim Berners-Lee is devastated about misuse of the web;’  ‘“The web ha[s] failed instead of served humanity;”’Why the Web’s inventor wants to take back his invention;’  — most of these stories spinoffs from, or commentaries on, an interview with him by a Vanity Fair writer titled ‘I was devastated.’ 

A report from the San Francisco correspondent of Les Echos drew a fully-earned parallel to Docteur Frankenstein ‘surpris par sa création’ —  an inventor appalled by the creature’s transformation from an open highway that anyone was free to travel, into a collection of monopolistic platforms whose owner-operators twitch on the puppet strings of internet users with nowhere else to go, to meet the addictions and needs they satisfy on them.

In her very good detailed explanation and summary of TB-L’s plans and technical innovations intended to re-decentralise the net, Zoe Corbyn quotes net veterans under no illusions about how difficult this is likely to be. With careful understatement, Brewster Kahle, the founder of the not-for-profit Internet Archive, for one — told her that he expects that because ‘[t]here are going to be a lot of forces for the status quo,’ the success of any such initiative is far from ‘inevitable’.

In the meanwhile, we can each do our bit by reporting on what we learn from watching BB watch us, amassing all the data we can about his newest incursions into our freedom and intimate spaces, and demanding that he be a model of transparency about what he is up to.

Let’s do whatever it takes to help TB-L become his worst All Hallow’s Eve nightmare — Bigger Brother.

moonrise over scorched earth postgutenberg@gmail.com

** No, not their actual unit of measurement.

Who is going to start a movement to stop the social media giants from milking us like witless data cows? (Why a keiretsu-cooperative could be a better idea)

indoor rainbow 2 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

Indoor rainbow, through a crack in a glass pane

Will the conversation about forcing Big Tech — especially Facebook and Google — to pay us for stripping our lives of personal information they sell to advertisers lead to a revised business model for newspaper publishing?

We launched this site in 2011 with a proposal that newspaper and other media websites share with commenters (then referred to as ‘bloggers’) the economic value that they add with their comments — a scheme we have updated intermittently since we first outlined it in 2010 as ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing’.

In a paper released at the close of 2017, ** five scholars and computer experts at elite U.S. institutions are calling for social media users to unite to demand payment for the streams of data about us that have made Big Tech rich, and insist on our right to determine where that information goes and on what terms.

That is the essence of the boldest conclusion of those thinkers, collaborating over the fence from these places: the School of Engineering and the Department of Economics at Stanford; Columbia’s Department of Economics; Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the Department of Economics and Law School at Yale.

Their justification for their call to action is technical, apparently aimed at mandarins (wonks) drafting economic policy, whom they hope to persuade that governments must shift ‘ownership rights in data to the users that generate them.’ (About time, we say.) They couch their arguments in basic economic theory — the theory of the firm — whose jargon and quasi-mathematical symbols obscure concepts that are easy to express in plain English. The overall impression is of rabbis presenting scriptural sanction that they felt obliged to seek in the Talmud to bolster a commonsensical moral argument: social media users must not accept being milked for our data without compensation or control.

How likely are we to see the birth of a movement with such a rallying cry? Not very, we suspect. For a start, hardly anyone seems to have heard of its ivory tower recommendation or the paper in which that was made. We only learnt of this document’s publication by chance, browsing on the site of The Financial Times [ ft.com ]. There, the final paragraph of John Thornhill’s helpful outline and commentary reminds us that the exploited have historically got the attention of their exploiters by going on strike — and suggests ‘digitally picketing social media groups under the slogan: “No posts without pay!”’

In his column’s comments section, some readers urged the FT to set an example. This one, for instance:

FTcom reader's comment on John Thornhill column

Organising movements and keeping up their momentum can be frustrating enough to drive surpassingly patient saints to distraction. Time and patience are scarce, and we have all grown used to instant gratification on the net. Anyone can sign up for an account on Twitter and broadcast a maiden tweet in minutes. A newcomer to WordPress could write and publish a first blog post in less than an hour. By contrast, although launchers of a movement to get us paid for our data could use, say, Change.org’s tools to collect signatures for petitions, that would only be the first stage of years of hard graft, gathering political support for drafting laws to regulate the ownership and sale of users’ data.

Media organisations implementing our own proposal for treating users fairly could get results faster and lead in setting standards for post-Gutenberg economic equity. These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

What would be the attractions of a scheme like this for today’s corporate media owners?

• It would reduce their dependence on advertising, which social media giants have been diverting into their coffers.

• Offering readers co-ownership of a site where they read and contribute comments would give the keiretsu publishers an edge over Facebook — which, as we have argued in this space repeatedly, should be a cooperative owned by its users.

• Drawing up rules for paying readers and commenters for each individual contribution would be a lot more complicated than allowing them to buy stakes in the meta-site. Making them co-owners would ensure their loyalty and give them an incentive to return to participate often — making the site more attractive to advertisers.

We have laid out other advantages and other dimensions of our proposal here: ‘Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!’

Despite our reservations about it, a movement to end social media’s data theft is guaranteed our whole-hearted support.

** ‘Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond “Free,”’ Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Leonard Goff, Diego Jiménez Hernández, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, American Economic Association Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 1, (forthcoming).