What If? The Reverse Transition from Digital to Print

While many bemoan the changes that are occurring as our culture moves from print to digital media creation and consumption, I wanted to consider the value of digital media if we were experiencing the opposite transition:

What if we were moving from a digital media world to a print media world?

What if digital media was invented first, back in the 1400’s , and then in the 1990’s, print burst onto the scene? What if thousands of startups began developing print-centric business models, and businesses started converting their processes from digital to print? What if teenagers stopped texting, and started passing notes in class? What if letter writing took hold, replacing email? What if blogs found their business models in shreds as print advertising grabbed all the dollars?

In our bizarro scenario, perhaps these are the reasons that people rejected the web, finding more value in print:

  • An Appreciation for Slowness
    Fewer information channels – less overwhelming

  • A Personal Connection With Media
    New rituals being created – picking up a newspaper with your coffee in the morning, holding a book as you cozy up in bed at night, appreciating the hand written notes from an old friend.

  • Well Filtered
    Appreciating media that makes choices as to what is worth reading. Instead of a nation of freelancers all vying for attention to their websites and blogs, professionals band together to create magazines and newspapers – groups of the most talented people, coordinating to produce only the very best content.
  • Beautiful Packages
    Designers rejoice at the beauty of print media and the ability to create beautiful products that will sit in the center of people’s homes and desks. And of course, people quickly understand that a well designed and edited magazine is a joy to read – something to look forward to in the mailbox each week.
  • Businesses Find Value in Paper Records
    Tired of the data farms of information that are expensive to maintain in massive computer systems, businesses begin transitional digital files to paper – storing them in cabinets that are within an arms reach of employees. They feel more secure that proprietary data cannot be stolen by hackers or exposed by a mistake from an employee. The need to memorize dozens of passwords is now a thing of the past – you either have the key to the file cabinet or you don’t.
  • Privacy Advocates Rejoice
    Tired of story after story of confidential information leaking to the web, privacy advocates embrace print as a means to better protect and control information. The benefits to businesses, government and individuals means less scandal, and less fear of hitting the wrong keystroke on the computer.

  • Communities Become More Local
    Quickly, each town sets up their very own newspaper – reporting only on news relevant to their region, and serving business needs of local owners. A sense of identity and shared purpose abounds, at mere pennies a day. The local classifieds become the source for anything you need in town, connecting you directly with neighbors. Local communities no longer need to compete on a global stage with larger brand that are managed by those who don’t understand the values, needs and customs of their specific town. The world is no longer flat.
  • Environmentalists Cheer the Move from Silcon Chips to Recyclable Paper
    Tired of gadgets and technology that are obsolete every few years, environmentalists cheer the use of paper as a renewable resource that can also be recycled.
  • The Rise of Print Gurus
    Like any big transition, executives and print media gurus are created nearly by the minute. New theories and books are published that explore the changes and how they will shape our culture. It becomes an industry in and of itself, creating thousands of new jobs.
  • More Meaningful Targeting
    Google is too big of a pool to swim in for niche markets who want to be close and feel the personal connections that can’t be intruded upon by other industries. Finally, the local shoe store can afford to advertise to their target audience without being edged out by Zappos in Google adwords.
  • Tighter Circles of Friends
    Instead of huge online social networks with hundreds or thousands of connections, people choose to have fewer "friends," focusing only on in-person connections. They are tired of the obtrusiveness of the web and the voyeurism it encourages. Weak ties are shunned for deep connections.
  • Communities Create Libraries.
    Tired of being left to their own devices to find and understand information, students flee from Google, and instead flock to new institutions called libraries. Here, they are given one-on-one help by an information expert, and are less overwhelmed by a tidal wave of information, instead given topic specific books.

But let’s consider what our society would lose in such a transition from digital to print:

  • Journalism
    Without widespread use of the internet, there would be fewer ways to produce and distribute news and information, and a sum loss in the amount of news and analysis available to the average citizen. Likewise, fewer people could become news sources, giving a few large wealthy players to control and distribute news.
  • Distribution
    With distribution channels being reduced down to one (the printing press), we would go from many voices, to few. The news and communication cycle would slow down to match the capabilities of this medium, having a profound affect on business, government, and our personal lives.
  • Creativity
    There would fewer ways for people to express themselves, due to the cost of creation and distribution. Fewer people would be able to create content and share their efforts. While society would have access to high quality print information, many voices would be silenced from the world stage.
  • Content
    Print focuses exclusively on words and images, meaning that that video, audio, interaction and mashups would become endangered.
  • Information and Data

    Data and information would be less useful, as it could no longer be easily integrated into other systems, and easily found.
    But a burgeoning technology – microfiche – could alleviate these issues.

  • Education & Knowledge
    The world’s knowledge will be available to fewer people. We would become more myopic in the information we receive, and education courses would be available to far fewer people, and at far greater expense.

  • Socializing
    We would lose a primary way to meet new people, stay in touch with those we do know, and will have fewer ways to find value in those relationships.

  • The End of a Business Model
    Businesses that make money from digital means would be lining up in Washington, asking for government subsidies for things like search engine marketing – a now failing business model; Google would be left to sue a handful of publishers who are now hoarding the connections, content and profits.

In considering this bizarre scenario, I found myself enthused about the incredible value that print brings. However, I can’t help but feel that a reverse transition from web to print would seem a bit like Big Brother was taking over; that citizens are given beautiful print packages at the expense of freedom of information, connection and creativity. It would give more control to fewer people – allowing them to decide what is good enough for the masses.It would not by any means be overt censorship, but rather, the hoarding of power to the limited space available in an expensive world of print products and distribution channels.


  1. Interesting food for thought, Dan. It's hard to conceive of such a reversal, however, given my acute knowledge of the print-centered, pre-internet world. We now stand only a couple of generations away from its disappearance, and it would appear the once cherished benefits of print, i.e. “appreciating the hand written notes from an old friend,” may soon be compared with our grandparents gathering around the family radio. In any case, as times change, so do we. I am eager to see how we continue to embrace—and to resist—the changes wrought by technology and business on the frontier of new media.

  2. A very thoughtful article. Thank you.

    As someone who is almost 50 years old I feel sometimes like I'm a piece of meat between two pieces of bread. One piece of bread is the print world and the other is the digital world. I like being sandwiched between the two, very comfortable, but I do have a sense that the print piece of bread will fall off soon and I'll miss it.

    When I visit bookstores these days, I'm struck by how much they feel like music stores (the kind that sell CDs) did 6-8 years ago… not long for the world. While I much prefer my music they way I get it now, I think I will miss the tactile feel of curling up with a book.

  3. Rory,
    Thanks – great article, by the way. I believe Politico is another example of this trend of print creating revenue for a web publisher. Have a nice day.

  4. Frank,
    Thanks – good points. I can't help but feel that print won't go away, just as radio didn't go away with the advent of TV. There is truly unique value and enjoyment in print – digital doesn't fully (by any stretch) replicate all of that value. We are certainly in a sea change right now though… and it's quite a bit of fun to experience!

  5. John,
    Funny analogy! I used to go into music stores (one of my major hobbies earlier in life) and be bummed that they were closing, still appreciating their value. But now – the web is SO much more valuable for music discovery. I never make a purchase I regret because I have so much access to samples of songs and the opinions of so many other fans.

    With books… I just feel there is such a time commitment for each one, and a high price for each as well. With a record, I will listen to it dozens of times in the next few months, and pay around $15 for it. Full retail (bookstore) prices for books has me paying closer to $30 for a book that (at best) I will read once. And let's face it, like most people I know, there is a STACK of books at home waiting to be read.


  6. An amusing read. But what is really interesting about the web is how non- or anti-global it is. By that I mean writers/content providers project their experiences thinking they hold a universal truth. They don't seem to consider that the rest of the world may have a different experience or view, or not even care.

    For example, in America right now you are watching print face a really rough time in terms of diminished revenue. Many of the old style publishers could have ridden out this storm or even taken the lead in adapting to the new media, but they were bought out mostly by non-media people who attempted to run a newspaper or magazine as if they were producing corn flakes or car parts. It didn't work and these new owners loaded up holding companies with massive levels of debt. Like home owners who bought more house than they could afford.

    Yet, have readers abandoned print or is it a matter of skittish advertisers holding back their ad buys to preserve cash flow? In Canada newspaper and magazine readership is only down about 1-3%. Book purchases are up 5 and 6% in the last two years. Here readers still seem to love dead tree technology.

    And all this doom and gloom overlooks the small regional titles and local hometown papers many of which are doing just fine. I was just in Vail – it's a small town, yet supports two dailies! And the paper in Aspen is full of advertising.

    The web may be a faster distribution channel, but it has weaknesses. Writers don't recognize the wider world, they're covering their backyard and think the rest of us care. There is no good editing, otherwise why would stories about a bimbo like Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson so dominate? (Larry King has a lot to answer for on this regard) And there are no budgets to dig into important stories: Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, or local to me, what's gone wrong with a $300 million sewage treatment plant? The sewage treatment plant isn't a glamours story for a young journalist to cover, but it's an important one to the community. The web isn't as interested in such things. The web hasn't shown itself prepared to put money into such reporting.

  7. Dan,
    Interesting post ( so Bradburyish).
    As a person who researches public understanding of health and science – “health literacy”, another powerful thing forfeited in a reversion to a dominantly print world – is the growing liberation of those who read less well. Which, in fact is millions of folks.
    The NALS ( National Assessment of Literacy, '93 and 2003) hits us with the powerful statistic that 50% of adult in the US are reading at 8th grade level and lower.

    Technology – web, social networks, texting, have allowed many people to access and participate in the larger expert and public discourse on profoundly important issues of health, safety and social equity.

    So I'd add literacy related issues to your list….simply another county heard from.



  8. Allan,
    Thanks – great feedback. To your point, I think it is easy to oversimplify matters – be it by region, medium, topic, etc.

    In this regard, I think that “journalism” is often not looked at more criticalyl – what it is, what it's role is to print media & it's revenue, and how media in this country (or any country) does or doesn't relate to tenets of journalism.

    This is an ongoing conversation, as it should be.
    Thanks for sharing!

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