This is going to ramble, so grab a snack.
I was listening to the excellent Print Run podcast the other day and they were discussing a couple of trends they felt were interrelated — the purchase of Simon Shuster by a hedge fund known for dismantling companies (they are the ones that destroyed Toys R Us, as an example) and the creeping of generative AI into the publishing world and how the two are indicators of the tech-ification of book publishing. While I agree the trends they discussed are real and are bad for the industry and thus our culture, I don’t believe they are bad for quite the reasons the hosts thought. And because the hosts misread the causes, working towards a solution will be harder.
First, the two elements are distinct problems. Private equity raiding has been an issue for twenty years or more. Our system allows these firms to essential act as mob bosses — to do a bust out with the companies they buy. Toys R Us did not fail because it was an unprofitable business. It failed because the firm that purchased it using debt was allowed to transfer that debt to Toys R Us and allowed to force Toys R Us to pay “management” fees to the purchasing company. That kind of should-be-illegal nonsense existed before the internet was a gleam in Tim Berners Lee’s eye. The solution to it is to make those practices illegal — railing against tech, even properly, won’t stop those particular practices.
And the hosts miss the mark, at least somewhat, with tech and how it will interact with book publishing. The hosts point out that publishing is exploitive in a very specific manner — it pays most of its worker too poorly to live independently, especially in the regions that publishing houses itself. It counts on hiring a steady stream of people who love books and who have other means of support (spouses, family support of some kind, or a willingness to live six to a two-bedroom apartment if it means working with books) to keep the books flowing. While opposed to this kind of exploitation, they do recognize that it does at least produce people who value books and literary culture. They are afraid that the tech-ification of publishing will bring in different works — people who are focused on the “grind”. And this is where the analysis goes sideways.
Yes, the tech industry is known for its grind, especially in well-known companies and startups. But even though of us who work in the majority of tech, in companies outside of Silcon Valley, work more than the traditional office hours. We are generally well compensated for it, especially in Silicon Valley, but the grind mentality generally (though not always) does not come from the desire to accumulate more and more wealth. Most people who work in tech do it for similar impulses as the people who work in publishing — they take creative joy in the work and believe that they are making things better through what they do.
AI is a fun problem. Most technical problems are. People who started at Facebook or Twitter, for example, really did think they were making the world better by connecting people. The person who did the Prosecraft really did love writing, as misguided as they were. And that is your problem — you will be replacing one kind of exploitation with another. The people who will tech-ify books publishing will generally, at least at the worker level, love books. They will be lifelong readers and frustrated authors, much the same as the people who work there today. The problem will be that they will think that they can use tech to completely transform how books are produced, when they really can’t. Creativity is not a tech problem, and whatever production efficiencies are present are liekly to be minor at this stage.
(A quick side bar — this discussion applies only to the workers. Most executives, at either the tech or publishing houses, are interested only in making short term money.)
Okay, so if the result is the same, then why take issue with the podcast discussion? Because by mis-identifying the problem, it perhaps makes solving it more difficult. First, it pits workers against each other. It tends toward the lazy “humanities vs. tech” dichotomy that seems to dominate and distort the discussion around the influence of the tech industry in our society. By lumping tech workers in with tech executives (who tend to be finance people, not actual tech people), we create unnecessary and unnatural divisions that make solidarity harder than it needs to be.
Second, by not recognizing that most tech workers are motivated by the same creative impulses that drive most people, you miss the opportunity to change the incentives and redirect those impulses. There are plenty of problems that need technological solutions, or where technological solutions can be part of the overall plan. Climate change, government benefits, drug research, etc. But this country leaves the direction of its research and economy almost entirely in the hands of private companies, though the Biden Administration is beginning to tentatively change that. If we gave people more opportunities, for example, to creatively contribute to meaningful problems they would be less likely to fall for the faux meaningfulness offered by tech companies.
Tech culture has its problems. It is exploitative, it is dismissive of regulation, it blunders its way into area it does not understand or appreciate and “disrupts”, and too many of its members are arrogant and contemptuous of other views. But most of that comes from the executives who run the companies. And much of that could be said of the publishing industry or in fact any industry. Capitalism does not incentive good behavior. The solution to the problems of tech is not to pretend that tech is somehow unique but rather to recognize that tech is embedded in capitalism and change the systems accordingly.
Today the issue is the tech industry. Yesterday it was junk bond take overs. Tomorrow it will be something else unless we change the system.