The Writing Revolution — the transformation of the way we communicate in all realms of life — continues. Consider these twelve big developments awaiting us in 2012:
A publishing-versus-tablet battle erupts in public education: For years, textbook publishers have been caught in the crossfire of the Culture Wars. When a big state like Texas or California adopts a textbook, its publisher rakes in big dollars. So religionists and secularists battle over how to portray American history and evolution, among other topics. Now the battle shifts from the content of textbooks to their format. Schools could get an Amazon Fire for every student and save megamillions on textbook costs. When some financially strapped school district goes that way, publishers will panic. The question is, what kind of insider lobbying and public posturing could possibly work for Big Book?
Major newspapers close or shift to all-digital format: As more people get digital reading devices — iPads and Kindles and Nooks and smartphones, not to mention computers of all sizes — what advantage does the pulp paper retain? Why go to the expense of printing and distribution when new models of pricing make digital editions smarter? Pinch Sulzburger has already acknowledged that the days of pulp are numbered for The New York Times. But what paper’s shift to bits and bytes causes the avalanche? The Old Gray Lady? The L.A. Times? Papers in Chicago or Atlanta or Philly or Dallas? Ironically, pulp could beat pulp — that is, the freebie papers like the a.m. and Metro tabloids and the Washington Examiner (which I like, by the way) could give commuters all the paper they need for commutes. E-readers will do the rest.
Businesses discover that writing offers a powerful “positional advantage”: Corporate America loses billions to poor writing. Writing is a big part of the job description for three-quarters of professionals in Fortune 500 companies. Many write well, but many take days for documents that should take hours, with bad results. Someone is going to figure out that giving everyone in the company a writing boot camp could not only save time and make everyday operations smoother, but also tap new wellsprings of creativity. But it’s only going to work if everyone’s in, on documents from emails to major reports.
At least one state or big city recognizes that “plain English” can offer competitive advantages: People have complained for decades about the tortured language of government. What if a state or local government — or even just one or two agencies — started communicating in plain English? Businesses wouldn’t flock to that state or locality. But the marginal costs of doing business could be significant. State and local governments have done the impossible by streamlining the building process (New Jersey’s rehab subcode reform) and making the motor-vehicle bureau humane (Massachusetts under Governor Mitt Romney). At some point, clarity and transparency could offer real benefits to businesses on the edge.
Schools see that writing offers the best approach to transform learning: The New York Times muffed its interpretation of the great story at Brockton High School in Massachusetts. The Times said the school’s leap from one of the worst to one of the best schools in the state showed that big, sprawling schools could offer advantages. Yeah, right. The real story: Getting kids to write in all classes gets them to really process what they’re learning. Who’s next? What savvy principal or superintendent wants to be a miracle worker?
The information explosion creates new arbiters of truth: For more than a century, major metro newspapers and national magazines acted as the filters for reality about politics, cultural affairs, and more. If a publisher or editor didn’t think something was worthy of its ink, it didn’t see the light of day. Now, of course, publishing is virtually free. Already fact checking web sites, like the Annenberg School’s FactCheck.org, monitor the claims of pols. But there’s room for major organizations to rise up to play those roles more aggressively. If Google, Yahoo, and Bing can monetize searching, why can’t someone monetize sorting? A combination of human judgment and computer programming could take the role of Lou Grant soon.
The battle of the tablets goes nuclear: Amazon sells its Fire for less than it costs to produce. Christmas sales helped the Fire catch fire. Nook has a terrific touch-screen reader for about $100. The question is: What can Apple do in the post-Steve Jobs era to maintain its hold on the market. It’s $499 pricetag is too steep to hold onto its market share for long. Will Apple produce a iPadlet for $100? Or cut the price by $100 or so while adding irresistible features? What would Steve do?
The 2012 election gets so Orwellian that any honesty creates a backlaslh: Already, the level of sludge and distortion is breathtaking. Rick Perry’s “Oops” and Herman Cain’s “Hmmm, Libya, Libya…” moments got all the press. But this election will cost billions and the media are fragmented like never before. That is the recipe for distortions that will make George Bush Sr.’s Willie Horton ads look like Masterpiece Theater. Of course, we all know that negative ads work. We are wired, as a species, to care more about mortal danger than beautiful vistas — not to mention complicated truth. Both candidates — presumably Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — will dish out lies until someone corners them with a gotcha moment. Then the faux virtue of the other side will get good press for a while.
Miniaturization comes to the Silver Screen: This was the year of the first full-length feature film produced completely on a smartphone. Olive, shot with a Nokia N8, might not win any awards. But it’s getting a theatrical release. And its very existence underscores just how democratized the movie business could become. The mini-cinema — minema, anyone? — will continue to transform Vid Nation. The greatest impact could be on non-film industries . . . like journalism or smartphones, for example. Good journalism operations, for example, will deploy the smartphone as a central part of their work. Now, can Nokia get a bump? Naaaah.
America remains split on hot-button language issues of immigration: The Republicans seem determined to alienate immigrants. Michele Bachmann talks about adopting English as an official language, Rick Perry rips Mitt Romney for his yard workers, and Mitt hits Rick on college benefits for illegals. To be sure, how America speaks could determine the future cohesion of the country. Just look at Quebec or the Basques. But we’re going to keep muddling though on this issue. Arizonans might get hopping mad about Spanish-speaking people on the streets, but most of America has too much else to worry about.
Political activists come to understand that “narrative” only goes so far: Political insiders and activists talk constantly about creating a “narrative” of their cause. But as powerful as narrative can be, it has to be genuine to really cause change. And to be genuine, it has to be connected to real people with real commitments, operating with real institutions with real resources. The civl rights movement didn’t triumph because of pictures of Bull Connor hosing demonstrators or King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Those helped. But the movement triumphed because it mobilized hundreds of thousands through countless churches, schools, civic and advocacy groups, not to mention media and courts and an enlightened agency or two. You nee structure as well as message.
The Battle of the Big Five takes unexpected turns: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are all battling for control of information. Each one wants to be Big Brother — a nice big brother, mind you — and deny the others. They’re all going to get caught up in lawsuits and lobbying wars, not to mention the complexities of globalism. Who wins will turn not on who gets control of all of the points of control — devices, information, software, networks — but who stakes out total domination in a pivotal point of control. Will Facebook neuter Google’s mail and advertising? Will Google challenge Amazon and Apple for ereaders? Will Microsoft figure out how to leverage — and then pivot away from — their desktop operating systems? Most of all: Does another potential behemoth lurk nearby?
When most people talk about the revenge of the nerds, they usually think of computer geeks. But what about scribbling dweebs? The Writing Revolution is here. It will continue to shape how we see the world in the new year.