A Biology Lesson

I spent yesterday in the Shoreditch workspace of a tech start-up company. It was fascinating. The atmosphere of start-ups presents a startling contrast to those of the many independent publishers’ workplaces I have visited over the past two decades. Whilst publishing companies follow well-trodden product and seasonal cycles, in a start-up little seems certain and nothing is routine. Everything – including the business model – is in flux (pivoting to the initiated). Everything that is except the confidence permeating the air. Standing on what would seem to most publishers like shoals of treacherous, shifting sands, each individual in the firm exudes a belief – the calm certainty even – that their contribution to the product in development will be systematically achieved through the agile development process, a process that absorbs and resolves problems and change.

The contrast in attitudes to change between traditional businesses and start-ups reminded me of a recent piece in Wired by Colorado-based science writer Hillary Rosner about one of the planet’s most endangered species, the Devil’s Hole Pupfish. This critically endangered population lives in an isolated aquifer in the Mojave Desert, near (appropriately enough) Death Valley. The whole article is a great read – but for my purposes – here’s the pith…

Thousands of years of adaptation have left the Devils Hole pupfish able to live only in one very particular environment: It needs 90-degree water, low oxygen, and a shallow submerged ledge on which to spawn. It’s hard enough being endangered; being endangered and picky is a deadly combination.

The fish’s breeding challenges thwarted government attempts to create backup populations:

But at the third [backup] site, called Point of Rocks, something more interesting happened. Somehow a few pupfish of a different species managed to infiltrate the refuge and—to put it politely—their DNA quickly spread through the population. After about half a decade, every fish in the pool was descended from the invaders, who gave their offspring telltale genes and an extra set of fins. Wildlife officials moved all the hybrids to a hatchery, where, unlike captive Devils Hole pupfish, they couldn’t stop making babies.

Andy Martin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado – whose job gives him an obvious interest in the workings of DNA – reached the inevitable conclusion and in doing so caused ructions in the communities of scientists dedicated to preservation of endangered species.

To Martin, the fact that an influx of new genes caused a population explosion suggested what was wrong: “genetic load,” a glut of defective DNA that accumulates in a small population. On the upside, that diagnosis suggests a cure—a way to save the species. Martin has a plan to bring the fish back from the brink. But to the kind of people who have battled extinctions in the past, his solution is heresy.

That heresy is to widen the gene pool. To enable the small remaining wild but isolated Devils Hole Pupfish to thrive by allowing it to evolve.

Evolution is change…It would protect the Devils Hole pupfish by rewriting its genome.

By contrast with my day – yesterday evening was spent with a large group of academic publishers who – in the light of falling undergraduate numbers and challenging sales through traditional channels – were remarkably cheerful. (And by challenging I mean challenging – but as the conversation took place in the spirit of the Chatham House Rule, I can’t elaborate). Yet much of the talk centred around preserving a share of the old, and not seizing the opportunities of the new. It was widely agreed that challenged textbook sales this autumn are not a result of this being the year of a shift to e – because its not. Its about the market shrinking, not changing.

No shift to e is not because the e market doesn’t exist (despite anecdotal evidence that students still prefer books). But rather because both publishers and institutions are preserving their old ways – ring-fencing their DNA. But, ladies and gentlemen of the publishing and academic communities, what Andy Martin and the Devils Hole pubfish show us is that endangered and picky is a deadly combination. We know that both institutions and publishers are under massive pressure and something’s going to give. There will be mergers and the gene pool will shrink. Which suggests that when the moment comes and some DNA from the new breed of confident tech start-ups is introduced to the diminishing gene pool, we have the potential for a massive population explosion. Except what we will have will not be publishing or even education as we knew it. We’ll have a whole new species.

On Wednesday evening I quipped on Twitter that in the light of reading the Wired article I could feel a publishing metaphor coming on. Forget the Austro-Hungarian Empire @Pressfuturist: In the light of my observations yesterday, I give you publishers, tech start-ups and the Devil’s Hole Pupfish. What we’re going to see in the next few years – with the injection of confident, agile tech start-up DNA – is a rewriting of the publishing and institutional genome.

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1 Response to A Biology Lesson

  1. Ian Grant says:

    Your endangered industry pupfish will be re-born as sleek, highly communicative PUBfish, but only if we take the academic and educational stuff we know and sink it into the pivoting ponds of the start-ups. You say ‘what we are going to see… is a rewriting of the publishing genome’. I hope it’s what we are going to DO, not just watch it happen.

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