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Innovation 30 Nov 2017

The risk of pixelating content

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, he couldn’t publish everything he wanted. The supply of text was limited, censorship prevented him from publishing certain things, there were few authors around and demand for reading materials was low. In the 21st Century, the situation is very different. It’s worth exploring these differences, recalling the process that Marshall McLuhan called the Gutenberg Galaxy.

Today, digital publish is subjected to the vertigo created by the myriad of possibilities that technology offers. We have new books, new readers, but above all, new publishers. In the literary world, for example, Daniel Escandell tries to describe these phenomena in 'Escrituras para el siglo XXI. Literatura y blogósfera' (Writings for the 21st Century: Literature and Blogosphere). But desktop publishing isn’t limited to the world of books. It starts in social networks, where many users have become managers of their own writing. We post stories and share our adventures and thoughts. We design our profiles with news about politics, sports or entertainment. Some even dare to publish their own opinion pages. This creates vast opportunities to share the content, as well as potential interferences. Organizing the content within these new genres is a gradual and somewhat confusing process because there is so much text that it is difficult to classify it all.

There are also provocative editors like David Remnick who combine digital trends with turn of the century tradition. However, examples of synthesis between the physical and digital world are few in number. The reason for this is probably because there is a structural convergence that has not yet taken place. The alignment of the digital galaxy with Gutenberg’s galaxy has occurred in some way, in terms of form, but not of content.

At the end of the 20th Century, books had achieved a level of definition never before attained: advances in the printing press, together with the quality of the paper and the bookbinding tradition, led to excellent and affordable texts. Digital publishing at the time, with dot matrix printers and 8 bit processers, created very rudimentary images. The graphic cards offered a format of 9x14 pixels. A character printed by the rotary presses of 1990 was much more precise than computerized printing and the pixelated letters that appeared on the monochrome phosphor screens. Today this distance has disappeared. The detail in the 4K resolutions is similar to that of the pages printed at the end of the 20th Century. This suggests –among other reflections– questions about reading. Is book culture transferrable to the culture of digital texts? Is our attention span the same on an electronic device as on traditional media? And especially, is content from digital text as trustworthy as those from the so-called Gutenberg galaxy?

Aurhor Robert Bringhurst in The Elements of Typographic Style, said that at the end of the 20th Century, the quality of content and publishing were adjacent. At that time, well-versed readers had access to a selection of different media offering excellent information.

In the decades that followed, the expansion of content became an earthquake for the repositories of knowledge, whether in the scientific sphere – encyclopedias, for example – or in the news world, which includes traditional media. Some educated generations from the last century would feel very disoriented in today’s world. Of all the editorial spheres, perhaps journalism is one of the most tumultuous. In the search for a formula that combines accurate information, critical analysis and business, many have gone under. Some have had illustrious experiences – like The New York Times. But we have also seen experiments that were unable to overcome obstacles such as the tension with Internet giants like Google and Facebook, the lack of subscribers, pressure from advertisers and fake news. Limited checking of sources, manipulation of readers and superficiality are real threats. We mentioned this not long ago at an event for a 100-year old newspaper in Madrid.

Pixelating text puts the content at risk. We have also observed how some companies offer specialized information to their customers. This year The Economist reported that reliable information is the new resource of the future. And not only because the old saying calls for distinguishing between opinion and knowledge, but because in a culture of multiple possibilities, citizens need trustworthy information, texts that are precise and carefully written.

Much has been said about the importance of digitization in corporate transformation processes. This characteristic has been included in the definition of the so-called fourth industrial revolution. It’s clear that we can communicate and digitally invigorate content. But not without ensuring its quality. Companies and institutions will evolve, disappear or transform based on this ability to capture attention. BBVA Group Executive Chairman Francisco González said just this at the Forbes Summit: There will be new professions that face these changes and the key is knowing what actions define them. Again, we find ourselves before the importance of descriptions and analysis – in other words, content. More and more readers are demanding quality information, even beyond statistics, perhaps because accurate knowledge enables clarifications about a possible future.