Has Digital Printing Changed Everything?

The translated quote, ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same’ is attributable to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1908 – 1990). Karr’s actual words were: ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (Les Guêpes) However, I believe that Karr’s words have been quoted by several other luminaries, from George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill. As to the meaning, well, I suppose it means something similar to ‘nothing new under the sun’, except that it’s more paradoxical. My simple interpretation is that it means that the one thing that we can be sure of, the only thing that is consistent in life, is that nothing is permanent. Scholars and social critics often cite the invention of the printing press as a major invention that changed the course of history. The force of the printing press rested not in its impact on the printing industry or inventors, but on its ability to transmit information to a broader public by way of mass production. This event is so widely recognised because of its social impact – as a democratising force.The printing press is often seen as the historical counterpart to the Internet. Linotype Hot Metal Linecasters After the development of the Internet in 1969, its use remained limited to communications between scientists and within government, although use of e-mail and boards gained popularity among those with access. It did not become a popular means of communication until the 1990s. In 1993 the US federal government opened the Internet to commerce and the creation of HTML formed the basis for universal accessibility. Major innovations The Internet has played a critical role in modern life as a typical feature of most Western households, and has been key in the democratisation of knowledge. It not only constitutes arguably the most critical innovation in this trend thus far; it has also allowed users to gain knowledge of and access to other technologies. Users can learn of new developments more quickly, and purchase high-tech products otherwise only actively marketed to recognised experts. Some have argued that cloud computing is having a major effect by allowing users greater access through mobility and pay-as-you-use capacity. Social media has also empowered and emboldened users to become contributors and critics of technological developments. Similar processes are taking place with a range of technologies. Since becoming computerised in the 1990s, digital photography has quickly overtaken film photography for a majority of users. Due to lowering prices and improved technology, digital photography has become accessible to most of the public, as well as accompanying software. In addition to becoming a popular product, digital photography has become an extremely popular form of computer-mediated communication. 3D Printer circa 2014 The open source model allows users to participate directly in development of software, rather than indirect participation, through contributing opinions. By being shaped by the user, development is directly responsive to user demand and can be obtained for free or at a low cost. In a comparable trend, arduino and littleBits have made making electronics more accessible to users of all backgrounds and ages. The development of 3D printers has the potential to increasingly democratise production. Linotype’s CRTronic Phototypesetter circa 1984 The Future of Print as a Process Print as a process has a bright future because our industrialised society continues to ‘mark on substrates’. For most of us, that means applying text and images (often together) to paper and other substrates for a wide variety of purposes. The versatility and diversity of applications guarantee that ‘print’ will thrive. Certainly digital technology will displace some uses of print. However, many of those printed products whose demise has long been a foregone conclusion refuse to vanish. From the telephone directory to the lowly business card, there are applications for which print remains competitive with any digital alternative. While offset lithography is diminishing, inkjet and other digital imaging technologies are delivering the same sorts of printed products which are fulfilling the same applications. Will overall demand continue to trend downward? Certainly. Will pricing pressure continue as demand falls? Absolutely. But will print as a process vanish? I wouldn’t bet on it. Computer to Plate System circa 2008 Industry impact In some ways, democratisation of technology has strengthened this industry. Markets have broadened and diversified. Consumer feedback and input is available at a very low or no cost. However, related industries are experiencing decreased demand for qualified professionals as consumers are able to fill more of their demands themselves. Users of a range of types and status have access to increasingly similar technology. Due to the decreased costs and expertise necessary to use products and software, professionals (e.g. in the audio industry) may experience loss of work. In some cases, technology is accessible but sufficiently complex that most users without specialised training are able to operate it without necessarily understanding how it works. Additionally, the process of consumerism has led to an influx in the number of devices in businesses and accessing private networks that IT departments cannot control or access. While this can lead to lowered operating costs and increased innovation, it is also associated with security concerns that most businesses are unable to address at the pace of the spread of technology. A Digital Press circa 2014 The Future of Print as a Communication Medium Print as a communication medium is certainly diminishing. Newspapers are the sharp point of that spear. Magazines and other periodicals have declined more slowly, because even younger readers often prefer the tactile experience and all the other characteristics of print. The print v. digital discussion often misses attributes of print that help it resist erosion. Print is self-archiving. Print requires no external power source. Print requires no separate device with which to interface. Print is easily and inexpensively replaceable if damaged or lost. Print requires no learning of a user interface beyond a third grade education, which is where most of us really began learning to read with comprehension. Print’s chief disadvantage is distribution. And its future as a communication medium is largely tied to the fortunes of the South African Post Office. When distribution is simply far too expensive to sustain, print declines. And every Post Office rate case (or strike) which has raised periodical and standard mail rates has been mirrored by a decline in print volume. Will print as a medium vanish? That’s also very unlikely. For certain purposes, print’s effectiveness will be worth its expense, even with the distribution challenge it faces. Direct Mail marketing is proving that every day. The Future of Print as a Business Model The future of print as a business model is a more interesting and pertinent question. For nearly a century, nearly all printing firms have had parallel business models. Commercial print as a stand-alone business emerged as newspapers ceased being the community provider of print other than their own publications. And commercial printers have nearly identical ‘job shop’ business models. I’d argue that the business model itself is creating the most pain. In fact, it is the job shop business model that creates too little customer value to remain viable and relevant even while print as a process and print as a medium retain a good deal of viability. The ‘job shop’business model has four simple components: sell it, make it, ship it, and invoice it. Inevitably, that’s led to businesses with very simple business structures: sales, manufacturing, distribution, accounting. While many printing industry firms have grown enough to add other functional departments, those four remain the core elements of their business models. And that business model is turning into a sea anchor for far too many. The job shop business model relies on winning the opportunity to do what someone else has already determined needs doing. That means selling is all about capturing existing demand. If demand is diminishing, the job shop business model has nothing to say and no means to respond. Because nothing about it is focused on creating new demand where none existed before. So the viability of the commercial printing business model is under the most direct threat of irrelevance and obsolescence. The great good news is that those legacy printing companies who have recognised this threat and altered their business models (which is much more than offering new products and services) are creating strong and sustainable futures for themselves. They just don’t define themselves as ‘printing companies’ any longer. PS To quote Plato: ‘I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.’