Monday, February 05, 2007

Paul Kimball: Deluded Fool, or Visionary?

Re: the title above - I'm neither.

Still, those were the broad strokes of the two stark choices on display today at the first session of the NSFDC's Business Issues forum, which I'm moderating today and tomorrow.

This morning, one of the speakers, who is far more successful than I am (although, to be fair, he had a 20 year head start), was bemoaning - in about as pessimistic a way as possible - the future of the Canadian film and television industry. Beware, he warned - technology is only going to concentrate power in fewer and fewer hands (is that possible??), and if you think the small and mid-sized producer will be able to compete, you're deluded.

Now, as moderator, I'm not really supposed to get into it with the featured speakers. But, if you're a regular reader of The Other Side of Truth, you know that I'm not afraid to state my opinion, especially when the other guy is so egregiously, one-sidedly, wrong.

So I did.

Needless to say, Ray Kurzweil got his moment, as I replicated his graph about technological progress and the exponential advances of the last fifty years, and the even more exponential advances likely to come in the next fifty. As I was winging it, I had to go old school, i.e. draw it on a poster board with a marker, but I got it right. Then I said something to the effect of "human history has never seen this kind of exponential change, so fast. It's changing everything." I then added a remark about how, when machines achieve self-awareness in fifty years (which I noted on the graph), we're all screwed anyway, so what does it really matter in terms of foreign markets and distribution deals (that got a pretty good laugh).

Anyway, being a historian, I returned to the podium, and used my bully-pulpit to put things in what I see as perspective. I reminded folks that, prior to the invention of the printing press, the Western world was basically run by the Catholic Church and the monarchial and noble elite. After that - because it made the dissemination of knowledge more accessible - the walls came crumbling down. Sure, perhaps not all the way - the Catholic Church still exists, and elites still exist - but within four hundred years (a drop in the universal time bucket), we had the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution, changes that would have been unimagineable prior to the printing press, and the Gutenberg Bible.

Of course, I said, those changes are coming much faster this time, and the mechanism of change is the computer, and all that goes with it. It's changing the way that people communicate, and create, and think, in ways we barely compehend right now. It's definitely changing the industry I'm in, which is, after all, all about disseminating information of various kinds.

Oh, sure, the big conglomerates will no doubt adapt, and survive, just like the Catholic Church did, but they won't be able to dicate content, and conversation, anymore. Rather than something to be feared by small and mid-sized producers, the technological revolution were in the midst of these days is something to be embraced. It's liberating. It's the opportunity for new players to step up to the plate, and carve out their niche.

The people who understand this are the ones who will make their mark in the years to come, in ways and places that the establishment don't fully understand yet - indeed, they may never completely get it. Given the "vox populi" potential of new technologies (just check out YouTube, for crying out loud!), they may not want to get it.

But they won't be able to stop the increasing democratization of human thought, dialogue, and creativity. Some see that as "deluded" - I see it as a fact of life, and I'm not afraid to say so.

After I was done my amusing little rant (Kimball's Law - "If you're going to rant, always do so with tongue at least partially planted in your cheek"), things went back to normal, until the end, when, as moderator, I got the final word. I quoted one of my favourite "philosophers", Stan Friedman:

"Technological progress comes from doing things in different and unpredictable ways."

The same is true of business - including mine.

I welcome it, because where others see threats to the established order, I see opportunities.

Paul Kimball