Mar 27, 2019

Axios Future

Steve LeVine

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Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com. Kaveh Waddell is at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

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1 big thing: Gutenberg's legacy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Johannes Gutenberg died in 1468, a little over a decade after inventing moveable type. But he had already set in motion a gold rush-like frenzy of European entrepreneurs who flung open print shops to cash in on his technological earthquake.

  • This printing fever may be as responsible as Gutenberg's press itself for igniting the transformation that followed — the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Age, according to new research published by the London School of Economics (LSE).
  • Why it matters: We may be seeing the echoes of Gutenberg in the political and social tumult all around us, Jeremiah Dittmar, lead author of the article and a professor at LSE, tells Axios.

Today's competition for people's attention in the torrent of digitized information — blogging, the 24-hour broadcast news cycle and online commentary (not to mention email newsletters) — may be a key driver of the chaos.

  • "The technology is an accelerant," says Margaret O'Mara, a historian at the University of Washington.

The big picture: Competition was everything to the Gutenberg revolution, Dittmar and co-author Skipper Seabold wrote on their blog and in a longer paper in January.

  • When printers of the late 15th and early 16th centuries fought for the market, the price of knowledge — books and pamphlets — plunged.
  • From there, the ideas of Protestantism spread and radical societal and business reform followed.

How they reached their conclusions: Dittmar and Seabold collected data on every known book and pamphlet published from 1454 to 1600 — more than 295,000 of them in some 200 cities. Then they tracked the opening of printing shops.

Details of what they found:

  • The shattering of a local information monopoly with the opening of even a single added printer in a city caused book prices to drop by 25% within a decade.
  • Municipal Reformation laws followed, suggesting a link between the spread of printed material and political upheaval.

There was also an impact on the value of labor:

  • The value of knowing something skyrocketed — at once people who had ideas could get them into print, and cheap printing vastly inflated their audience.
  • The pay of skilled and unskilled workers stayed flat from the late 1300s through the 1700s, but the salaries of university professors rose dramatically, especially if their specialty was science.
  • Prior to printing, the median professor earned the same as a skilled worker. But by the early 1500s, professors earned seven times more than such workers.

The bottom line: The lifting of traditional gatekeepers — the Catholic Church in Gutenberg's day, and the mainstream media today — is one factor, but not everything.

  • Paul Starr, a professor at Princeton and author of the forthcoming book "Entrenchment: Wealth, Power and the Constitution of Democratic Societies" warns against "technological determinism."
  • "What they are missing entirely is the political and cultural context: the basic framework of control over communication (e.g., variations in censorship), the regimes of control over work (guilds) and intellectual property, and the various factors that influenced the demand for print (e.g., literacy rates)," Starr tells Axios.
  • Similarly, O'Mara says that, in both the case of Gutenberg and today, public faith in institutions had grown thin. "Even the most transformative technology doesn’t operate in a vacuum," she says. "New media propels political turbulence because of instability or loss of public faith in underlying institutions."
2. Where the pay gap hits hardest

Typing away. Photo: Getty

Over the last three years, the pay gap between American men and women shrunk by just 3 cents, per a new study from Glassdoor.

Erica writes: Women went from earning 76 cents to a man's dollar to 79 cents. But, in some jobs, that gap is even wider.

  • In industries where men generally outnumber women — like construction and energy — the pay gap tends to be more stark, says Glassdoor economist Daniel Zhao.
  • But there's one outlier to that trend. The media industry has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the U.S., Glassdoor found.

“The media industry continues to see roles that are dominated by men, including highly visible roles like anchor and editor,” says Zhao.

And media — like all industries — is adding scores of tech jobs, which is exacerbating pay gaps. “Common occupations include editor, producer and account executive, but also software engineer and game artist. This is an example where tech jobs with big pay gaps are spreading to other industries,” Zhao says.

3. Bees at the airport

At O'Hare. Photo: Steve LeVine/Axios

While traveling through Chicago's O'Hare Airport last week, I saw the above sign. The airport has an apiary with some 75 beehives and 1 million bees. It began in 2011, and it may be the first at a U.S. airport, but it's a trend.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Three AI pioneers win Turing Award (Cade Metz — NYT)

How Russia tampers with GPS (Joe Uchill — Axios)

The key to eternal youth: old mice (Clare Ansberry — WSJ)

Google's controversial "AI council" (Will KnightMIT Tech Review)

Airbnb's hidden camera problem (Sidney Fussell — The Atlantic)

5. 1 AI thing: Look, Ma, no ID

Face-recognizing machines at a Beijing airport. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty

While we're fumbling for our licenses and passports in long check-in lines at the airport, travelers in China are just walking up to a camera.

Erica writes: China tech analyst Matthew Brennan encountered one of the machines at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport. He filmed himself walking up to it, and in just a few seconds, the image recognition software pulled up all the details of his flight and checked him in — with just his face.

Worth noting: This technology might seem a bit unsettling, but it has already arrived in the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security has been testing facial recognition at airports for years, and Delta Airlines' systems in several airports scan travelers' faces for check-in and boarding.

Watch the Chinese machine in action.

Steve LeVine