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What would Yogi say?

Author info: HighWire Press
Post date: 28.09.2015
Post type: Article
Subject: Technological innovation

With Yogi Berra (1925-2015) much in the press this past week on the news of his death, I have been trying to come up with some koan-like “Yogi-isms” that would apply to information technology, or scholarly publishing.  It is a challenge; don’t worry, I won’t subject readers to my outtakes.(1)

But along similar lines — pithy, but not as entertaining as Yogi-isms — are the “55 Memorable Quotes from Disrupt SF 2015”  Disrupt SF is a meeting devoted to “debuting revolutionary startups, introducing game-changing technologies, and discussing what’s top of mind for the tech industry’s key innovators”.   As you can imagine, it is fertile ground for breathless, oracular pronouncements.   Some of which are true, or will become true.  And some of which have this Silicon Valley kind of hopefulness that leads you to want them to be true.  (Until you find out the company promising to change our relationship with each other is going to do that by delivering our takeout meals faster.)

Take a look over the 55 quotes, and see which ones you think you’d sign up for.  (Maybe make it a blind test: pick your favorites before you look at the name of the company the speaker represents, or what they do.)   And maybe the opposite: which ones do you think are just oracular pronouncements puffed up with hot air?  Or would lead to second order consequences you would just as soon avoid?  And which actually apply to scholarly publishing? (How is scholarly publishing like delivering takeout meals faster? perhaps this is a question for The Scholarly Kitchen‘s chefs?)

Paul Saffo is one of the technology industry’s best phrase-turners.  Paul consulted with me and Mike Keller during the early days of HighWire, and is often quoted in the media when a new technology appears, and the press needs to find a way to explain it.  Sometimes Paul comes close to Yogi Berra:

“Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” is perhaps his most famous saying.

A related quote is my favorite:

“People tend to overstate the short-term potential of new technologies and understate their long-term consequences.”

“People tend to
overstate
the short-term potential of new technologies and
understate
their long-term consequences.” – Paul Saffo

Paul explains: “Technologies take time — as much as 20 years — to move from invention to arrival in our lives. Because we assume adoption will be more rapid, we inevitably overestimate the short-term and under-estimate the long-term impact of new technologies.”

We are probably doing this kind of thing when we imagine the potential of “driverless cars” — we think of them getting rid of something — the chore and boredom and stress of driving — rather than enabling something — the ability of cars to be allocated by uber-apps, without the need for drivers.   “Horseless carriages” probably had a similar phase.  Autonomous vehicles have the potential long-term consequence of changing how we transit local areas and even own property.

In scholarly publishing, I would say we overestimated what electronic publishing — “printless journals” if you will — would do for scholarly journals by getting rid of the limits of print — electronic journals would “unlimit” the number of readers for a work, since distribution was essentially free.   But we underestimated the long term consequences — which in my experience only seem to arrive when the paradigm really shifts — e.g., when we stopped saying “e-journals” because all journals were “e”.  The long term consequences for scholarly publishing are (at least)  that freedom from the limits of print started to change the container — the scholarly article and eventually the scholarly journal — so that we could have new types of publications (shorter, longer, media-rich) as constraints on authors (not readers) were lifted.   Similarly some of us saw the potential that online peer review could reduce the time for the review process to a matter of days, even hours.  It theoretically could have, but it didn’t.  Instead, the long term consequences are that experiments in peer review — such as open peer review and collaborative peer review and other experiments — can be attempted.  These would have been hard to imagine in the days of emailing documents, much less FedEx’d manuscripts.   I see that a lot of the new value creation in scholarly publishing is moving ‘upstream’ from the journal-site distribution point, and into the peer review process, by moving close to capturing what the author is writing, and perhaps eventually closer to what the author is doing.

(1) Things like “Innovation is 90% perspiration, and the other half is inspiration.”

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