All technology becomes indistinguishable from magazines

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magazines. That’s how the Arthur C. Clarke quote goes, right?

Obviously not. The original last word of that sentence is “magic”. Clarke was a visionary, but he could only see partway.

Technology does gain a certain magical quality as it advances, but there comes a point where the magic wears off. Afterward, technology becomes indistinguishable from magazines. That’s almost where we are today with the internet.  

Yeah, you might want to sit down while you read this one.

What I mean by “magazines”

I clearly have some explaining to do.

I’ll start by defining the term “magazine”. Though you probably already have a good idea of what it means. You’ve seen those glossy publications found in grocery stores, pharmacies, bookstores, and so on. I would guess you have subscribed to one at some point.

Here are a few factors that make the medium unique and which will be useful for this discussion:

  • regular but less-than-daily publishing schedule.
  • you must subscribe to access content, though there’s usually a trial option. For magazines, your trial is when you read it in the store before buying it.
  • content is often focused on a niche.

Notably absent from this list is the physical medium itself. I don’t think paper, glossy or otherwise, is all that important. In the first half of the 20th century, magazines were far larger than anything that’s been around in the past 50 years. Today, I know of several magazines that exclusively exist online, and most exist both digitally and in print. Clearly, they can exist apart from that physical medium.

Still not seeing the resemblance?

I have a challenge for you: attempt to access a high-quality, advanced-level article about a topic you don’t normally deal with. If you can’t come up with something, try how to layer your clothes while rock climbing, Pokémon Trading Card Game strategy, or keyboard switch reviews. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read the content you find. You can also neglect to search and just trust what I say in the next few paragraphs. I’ll never know.

After you close the cookie pop-up and the one about the site’s newsletter, what do you see? Chances are it’s yet another pop-up letting you know how many articles you can read before you must start paying. There’s a chance you can’t read even one article without paying.

This situation makes sense though. Someone spent a lot of time writing that article. They’re sharing expertise that has value. That writer ought to be paid for their work.

We call these websites “blogs”, but they’re basically digital magazines. Even 20 years ago, comparable content would have been found in magazines at the grocery store (and I have 20-year-old Pokémon TCG strategy magazines to prove it).

Those paywalls add to the internet’s newfound magazine feel. Sure, paywalls have been around for a while, but their widespread adoption seems to be a somewhat recent phenomenon, even among the websites of traditional magazines and newspapers.

For years, the internet didn’t operate this way. People just posted stuff for free. They were rarely writing online articles full-time though. They ran their blogs like I run this one: in their spare time when they felt like it.

Today though, it’s possible to run a blog as a full-time job. The field has matured to the point there are subscription models. Those blogs sure seem indistinguishable from magazines.

Software is also indistinguishable from magazines

Parts of the internet far beyond article-based websites have become indistinguishable from magazines too. The resemblance is a little harder to spot, but it’s there.

Software is one area where the similarities are starting to come through. How many subscriptions do you have to the programs and apps on your devices? How many should you be subscribed to but you either pirated it or are daisy-chaining free trials through a network of burner emails? Freelancers are busting out their abacuses as we speak. But even outside of a work context, your answer is probably a sizable number.

Netflix, Spotify, Disney+, Crave, Slack, Microsoft Office, and the Adobe Creative Cloud are all delivered this way. This is called software as a service (SaaS), and you probably use a lot of it even without realizing it. After all, you might not even need to download an app to use these programs. Among that list, I think only Adobe software requires a download.

Cloud computing – the delivery of computing services on-demand and online – makes SaaS possible. In the days of low-speed internet, this sort of thing was just a dream.

If you read my story about the rise of Internet Explorer, you might remember that computer users in the 1990s had to go to the store and buy a CD to get a web browser. The same was true for just about any other program. That set a precedent in which people would pay one time for a program, which would theoretically function forever.

That model persisted for a while after it became possible to purchase and download these programs digitally. But as technology advanced, most people began subscribing to their software like it was a periodical.

Publishing schedules are the next frontier

Whether it’s a paywalled blog or an app that lets you edit photos, chances are the owners update it periodically. Just like a magazine.

Okay, I’ll admit this one is a stretch. Though there is something very Harper’s Bazaar about the way some software companies hold themselves to a routine update schedule.

I did specify that the internet is ­nearly indistinguishable from magazines, after all. One thing that keeps the internet feeling like the internet is the fact there are no real deadlines.

Each issue of a magazine must be completed by a certain time for logistical reasons. The printing company imposes deadlines to ensure your issues are printed in time to get their next client’s project going. Plus, that’ll help you sort out how to deliver the thing to your readers.

Not so online. You can file off a story whenever you want. See if you can spot a cheeky 3:42 am publication time on a post on your favourite blog. I doubt that watering can review was breaking news.

Likewise, there’s no real reason for software companies to roll out updates every two weeks. They’ll issue them when they’ve found and fixed a bug or when they’re done working on a new feature. Or when they want to completely redesign the user interface for no apparent reason.

Still, companies might try to follow guideline deadlines because they help with planning out workflows. I doubt we’ll ever see any as strict as those of the publishing world, but every company that adopts one helps the internet become indistinguishable from magazines.

It’s basically a one-to-one comparison

So have I convinced you that the internet is becoming indistinguishable from magazines? Let me know what you thought of my weird thought experiment in the comments.

This blog will stay firmly non-magaziney by never putting up a paywall. Though you can support me in a variety of ways, such as by sharing my posts. If you’re rich as hell and want to spend, you can tip me via the Brave web browser! Send me your BAT. Maybe I should also set up a Ko-Fi or something. Let me know if you’d send me dough if I did.

If you’re wondering what I think about this whole magazine thing, well, I’m on the fence. I wish there were better ways to support creators than paywalls. I love the idea of paying for content, but I dislike that so much content is inaccessible for those who can’t afford a bunch of different subscriptions. That includes me. I find myself closing interesting articles constantly because, while the site is excellent, I can’t justify adding another subscription to my monthly expenses. Especially when it’s just the one article I want to read. Patreon and tip jars offer an alternative, but they don’t work for everyone.

I’ll share more in-depth thoughts about paywalls some other time.

As for software, I hated when companies first began rolling out subscription models. I just wanted to buy a program once! Of course, no one ever bought a program only once. Today, I see the benefits of this model. I love that my software continually updates and is always the latest version. It’s also far easier to get my programs running on a new computer.

More importantly, it has pushed me to explore open-source software and get resourceful to avoid having to pay Adobe a monthly stipend. Let’s face it, no one wants to do that. There are plenty of competent free programs and tons of cheaper alternatives where free options don’t exist.

Of course, I tend to like magazines, so maybe that’s clouding my view.

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