Authors have it hard. Publishers scarcely exist, copyright is impossible to enforce and books become known not through stores or proper advertising, but by scattered personal recommendations. Even once-famous names end up trying to get their works noted by popular sites. The agony is not just that of our present digital era, but that of Cicero’s Rome. And 17th-century England. And pre-Revolutionary France. And pretty much everywhere that Tom Standage – The Economist’s digital editor and the most illuminating of Britain’s technology writers – casts his searchlight gaze.
That changed with the era of big newspapers and big publishing houses, which was boosted by the new steam presses of the 19th century. For 150 years communication was conceived in terms of Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, or Reith’s BBC. A handful of mighty beings stood at the top with hands folded, solemnly speaking out. The rest of us waited, passive supplicants, far below. Just a few years ago, all this seemed secure. But in the grand scheme of things, we can now see that it was only a blip. The media were different before, and Standage makes a strong case they’ll be different again.
First of all, our brains are exceptionally well designed for peer-to-peer observation. Primates have big brains compared to other mammals, and much of our extra volume is in the neocortex. The bigger the neocortex, the bigger the social network a creature can sustain. Howler monkeys have a relatively small neocortex