06/10/2014 06:53 BST | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Mental Barriers

A few days ago I sat in the jury of a university competition for a new school building. One week long young master students had researched and worked on location and had conceived of a school of the future for the next fifty years. The result was depressing. Not because there was a lack of innovative design ideas from the architects to be. Rather, it was because they thought of the future as a linear continuation of the past and present.

Correspondingly, the plan not only granted the school library a central location, but was also dimensioned so that thousands of books could be stored there. An independent room for IT was also planned. And the students had hung little maps on the walls - and blackboards.

As soon as ten years from now students at schools will no longer need much of this, or at least differently. The computer room and the maps already appear anachronistic today. The designs failed because of their planners' incapability to conceive of the future as something different. This is only human but that doesn't excuse the mistake. And the fact that such young students got so entangled in the concepts of the past only makes it worse.

Viewing the future merely as an extension of the past robs us of the chance to conceive and realize something new. Precisely this mind-set didn't understand the digital world when it had already become reality in various instances. It makes politicians, from the Chancellor down, understand the digital as an evolution of the existing order, and not the disruptive power that made our analogue world become digital in one and a half decades. What's even worse: whoever thinks in this way often regards the digital world with suspicion because it doesn't fit in their worldview. Then it is either demonized or reinterpreted so that it loses its importance.

That's unfortunate because the digital world opens up new chances for use, precisely by challenging us. It forces us and allows us to examine the familiar institutions and rethink things, not least to give it a new role and therefore also continued relevance. This is not only true for schools but also for all other knowledge institutions. I believe it would be more interesting and productive, precisely in this context, to think about what function publishers should assume in the future and which positive energy can emerge from it instead of playing down ebooks and chafe against the bogeyman Amazon. It can scarcely be limited to the annual awarding of prizes to digital critics. The physical production of a book or journal will hardly be enough to make an added value characteristic. And the control over distribution platforms are seemingly slipping out of the publishers' hands. Should they focus on their role as curators and quality guaranties or make an effort to learn from the reader-generated data streams and not make them stop with the eReader platform, but rather lead them via the publishers on to the authors?

Do these developments demand new business models, beyond the well-known market approaches oriented around demand-driven offers? Perhaps a way can also be shown by those newspapers and journals whose activities are supported by a foundation. Is the "Guardian" not only a model for the media industry, but also the publishing industry? And where is digital crowd-funding helpful?

It's not just splendid to discuss these and similar questions. They also open a wide field for innovative experiments - and perhaps with it the new media models of our digital future. But then we have to part ways with our restricting barriers of the past in our heads. It would be time.

Events with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

BIG DATA CRYSTAL BALL     October 7, 1:30 - 2:00 p.m.


On October 7, 2014, the day before the Frankfurt Book Fair starts (October 8-12, 2014), CONTEC will bring together the world of international publishing for the second time: program organizers and strategists from trade and academic publishers, service providers, start-up entrepreneurs, investors and business developers will meet to shine a light on the newest trends.

This year CONTEC is part of the Book Fair's new Business Club for the first time. Members of the Business Club not only have access to exclusive lounge and meeting areas, but also a first-class range of services. The program at the Business Club includes the Conference Rights Directors Meeting (RDM), and StoryDrive, as well as presentations, workshops, and master classes with high-caliber personalities. Further elements include personal consultations, themed tours of the fair, and speed dating offers. CONTEC Frankfurt will take place from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Business Club at the Frankfurt Book Fair (Hall 4.0). Additional information about the program and the speakers:

NEW this year: The Business Club at the Frankfurt Book Fair: a place of inspiration and concentration in the middle of the effervescent fair events