July-August 2008 Volume 42, No. 4
As the publisher of an extremely popular series of computer manuals, Tim O’Reilly has been dubbed the “guru of the participation age” by Steven Levy in a 2005 Wired profile and a “graying hippie” with a “hostility toward traditional media” by author Andrew Keen. O'Reilly will forever be known as the guy who coined Web 2.0 and launched the first commercial World Wide Web site. At his recent Tools of Change Conference in New York, we asked O'Reilly about the future of the Book, of writing, of publishing, and the Internet.
Interview by Patrick Tucker
FUTURIST: What is future of publishing?
O'Reilly: The future of publishing is a reinvention to discover what it has always been. A lot of people think of publishing as printing books on paper, paper between covers, those objects in bookstores. I always thought that publishing was about, first of all, understanding what matters, figuring out how to gather information and then gathering readers who that information matters to. There’s a kind of curation process. What the Internet has done is bring us new methods of curation. A lot of publishers are fighting those models. Instead of saying, ‘This is new stuff that helps us do what we do better. That’s why I love Adrian Holovaty, maker of a python toolkit called Django*. Because he talks about computer programming as journalism. How can you augment what journalists do with computer programming? How can you augment what publishers do with these new tools? That’s really one of the key things we’re trying to get at in this conference. It’s not about putting words on paper, it’s about reading the slush pile. Look at Digg, they basically found out how to harness the community to do that. Google learned how to harness the community to do that. That’s what page rank is. They figured out how to automate things that publishers used to do manually. You used to hire a bunch of college students to read all of these unsolicited manuscripts, find the one that was the great one that you would bring to the world. Well now, we have these new, better ways to find these things. How do you gather a community around it? How do you tell a story? If you look at O’Reilly, we realized that we’re in the meme business. We’re in the community business. And that’s why we don’t just publish. We organize conferences, we do early-stage venture investing, we do online publishing, we publish magazines, we have events with thousands of people. Our biggest event is Maker Fair with 45,000 people. We identified a community and an emerging trend and gave it a name. Everyone was like, ‘look at what’s really happening, we want to be part of that.’ That’s a publishing process, even though the product is a reinvention of the county fair. It’s just as much a publishing product for us, coming from our core-competency as publishers, as the book or the magazine.
FUTURIST: In many ways you’ve reinvented publishing for the twenty-first century…
O'Reilly: We’re not done yet. There’s a lot to learn.
FUTURIST: Do you think these older players can continue to be relevant in this technology driven, participatory environment? In many ways, editors are the last gatekeepers, and much of what you’re about is getting over the gatekeeper…
O'Reilly: I’m not sure of that. I mean, a really great example is a session here from a company called Logos Bible Software. Who would think of these guys as doing really cool stuff? They basically publish electronic editions of really obscure religious texts. Or scholarly texts that are used by people in religion. Would you like your Liddel and Scott Greek Lexicon online? Guess how they do it? They basically have community pricing software where they have people vote on whether or not they would have people buy the book. They buy it in advance. They basically expose, in Web 2.0 fashion, 'this is the price curve we’ve got. We’ve got people willing to pay this much, we have this many people, they show how many people are willing to pay at this price point.' And they show the line they have to get over to publish the book, sometimes they don’t get there. Usually the community feedback tells them what’s the best price for the book, and that aggregates the demand, and they eventually get enough to put it off. They’re actually harnessing community to set prices and to tell them which products to publish. That’s cutting edge. It’s in an area of publishing that’s traditionally been incredibly obscure. I think there’s a lot of innovation in publishing. Yeah, some of the giants are going to be slow to catch up, but they’ve come a long way.
When we first started trying to talk to publishers about trying to go digital in the late eighties, first started really pushing the idea of digital publishing, I was actually first working with SGML, which eventually lead to XML, which lead to our involvement and eventually to the commercialization of the Internet, They weren’t even thinking about trying to keep any electronic copies at all. You look at these announcement today, they seem too little, too late, where Harper Collins has this digital repository, and Random House has its digital repository, but it's allowing them to start innovating, and start engaging and to start and be part of the technology process. I’m very hopeful. I think the amount of energy and innovation at this conference is as great as at any other O’Reilly conference. That’s the beauty of conference, because you start to tell a story, you bring people together, it’s sort of the ultimate in helping to uncover what’s good that’s happening in a community. I think there’s a lot of exciting stuff here.
FUTURIST: You must feel very vindicated that these things you were advocating in the eighties, that mainstream publishers weren’t able to wrap their heads around at the time, now this place is crawling with publishers, and they’re seeing the future you laid out 20 years ago.
O'Reilly: I, along with a lot of other people. And of course, the future always takes unexpected twists and turns and so it never comes out the way we expect. I certainly don’t think of myself as a futurist, or someone who predicts futures. I see myself as someone who calls plays at a game. I see the play unfolding and I call it. When I said, hey, there’s this possibility for the commercialization of the Internet, back in 1992, I was calling the game. Sometime you have a small role in helping that happen. I actually got dispensation from the National Science Foundation to put the first commercial site on the World Wide Web and that unleashed the avalanche. [note: this is an actual quote but the claim seems dubious] Our bestselling authors were creating software that no one was writing about in the computer industry. We create this thing we call the open source summit. Because we came up with a new name, we were helping to create the future, but that was really just calling the play as it was unfolding. Same with Web 2.0, you see pattern, you give it a name. People say, ‘oh, that’s us.’ Right now, we’re seeing this, what we call in Make magazine, we’re calling it open source hardware. These are things that start with hackers, eventually we start to see a story and try to tell it in a way that’s bigger than us, bigger than our products, that allows people to come together around the possibilities of the future. You know, the future isn’t something that just happens by itself. We make it collectively in our choices, desires, passions. They come together. Sometimes, it takes effort, you can cause some new idea to crystallize out of a solution and people rally around that idea.
FUTURIST: You seem to sit on both sides of the aisle on that. I know you have a degree from Harvard and you won a NEA grant to translate Greek fables. But at the same time, you’re at the forefront of a technology that some people say is driving us toward a post-literate age.
O'Reilly: I don’t see this at all as a post-literate age. The people I know who are involved in technology are often profoundly literate. Most read a lot of books. Even if they don’t, they engage with ideas and content from the past. Anyone with a real appreciation of history knows about ideas, knows that the cannon of today has been forgotten for centuries at various times. I mean, Plato, we think of Plato as this shining light of Greek civilization. Well, he was lost pretty much for three or four hundred years and rediscovered in the first or second century A.D., and then he and Aristotle were brought into the fabric of the Catholic church and became part of what we today call the Classics, but it didn’t have to be that way, with many other classical authors. People go in and out of fashion. But creative re-use has a way of bringing things back. I could be wrong about this, but I would guess that Sappho is way more popular today than she was in the 18th century....
FUTURIST: Helps to become an adjective...
O'Reilly: Right, she was rediscovered and became part of our culture again. That whole remixing of the past is fundamental to humans. We’ll always do it. We’ll go back and find things and reuse them and sometimes twist them. Look at the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, what a tragic novel this is, right? They totally bastardized it. Maybe they missed the point. Notre Dame de Paris is not about the hunchback so much as it is about the church, and the idea of sculpture as a way of communicating stories, because in the pre-literate era, they told the stories through these churches that were basically covered with stone stories. Victor Hugo was lamenting the loss of that stone literacy, where people would look up at the church and know what it was about, and yes, something was lost. But we gained a lot. I remember a conversation I had at our open source convention with Freeman Dyson, the physicist, he said something wonderful. Someone asked him, ‘What do you think about the fact that we were losing something or other,. he said, ‘We have to forget. Otherwise, there would be no room for new things.’ That’s an important thing to take…be accepting of the losses and the gains. Celebrate the culture that we’re making, don’t hang on to the one we used to have. People are good. They’re creative. They will make a world that’s fascinating if we let them. They only thing we have to bemoan are the people that tried to keep things the way they were and who tried to stop people from expressing themselves or sharing their joy.
FUTURIST: Do you think that that’s the model that traditional publishing is still stuck in, with the dripping out chapters one at a time, not allowing too much material on the Net too quickly, Do you still think they’re in this trepidation mode or do you think they’re moving beyond it now?
O'Reilly: I don’t think publishers are any more stuck in the past than any other business that has an existing business model that’s being threatened. Creative destruction is the nature of an economy and every incumbent, whether it's IBM facing interpersonal computers or Microsoft facing the Web, or in some future years, Google facing whatever comes next.
FUTURIST: What’s next?
O'Reilly: We really are moving beyond the era of the PC into the era of ambient computing, where we’re interacting with the global network through devices that are sprinkled throughout the world, smart objects, and I think the next big thing is really not to do with the Web at all. I think the next big thing has not to do with the Web at all. I think it's beyond the Web.
FUTURIST: What do you think of New York?
O'Reilly: I love New York, I have a friend on the upper West side, who I’ve been visiting for 32 years. It’s sort of home away from home.