Is This the End of Technology?

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

Is it just me or does it seem to anyone else that print technology is slowing down?

First, we seem to be in a time that’s nearly devoid of breakthroughs, those game-changing technological moments when the universe changes to uncover a totally different way of thinking and doing things. OK, inkjet is certainly in the process of reinventing the way some printing is done, but this is really more evolutionary than revolutionary. Inkjet has been around for decades and is finally becoming feasible for higher speeds and lots of applications. But a breakthrough? Not so much.

Next, digital technology, by which I primarily mean those screens we all carry in our pockets, has surged forward. In just a few years we’ve gone from cell phones the size and weight of a brick to ones we use for video calls with people on the other side of the globe. Never mind all the cat and dog videos that pollute the internet, all of which come from cell phones.

But even here, technology is slowing down. Sure, the tiny screens sport sharper resolution, better battery life, and the cameras improve, but the limits are real. Sure, we’ve made a huge leap from hardwired phones with long cords to ones that double as the GPS in the rental car you had in Buffalo Chip, Wyoming. But where is the next big leap? Or is there one?

Maybe it’s that we’ve become so spoiled by the pace of technology over the past 20-odd years that we expect “the next big thing” to be just around the corner. This is why people line up overnight outside Apple Stores for the next release of an iPhone, wax poetic about the wonders of Windows 10, or boast about the electronic marvels in their new lease car. Yet all the hype is window dressing seasoned with very astute marketing. As Seth Godin recently noted, smartphones, over which most of us receive email, are “optimized, tested, and polished call-and-response machines.” He explains that when the things buzz or ring with a new email or call, our brains shoot out a tiny hit of dopamine that makes us feel good because someone is reaching out to us. Which, by the way, is why highly personalized direct mail is more effective than the junk addressed to “resident” or “occupant.” Oooh! Another hit of dopamine!

But chemicals aside, another part of this apparent lapse of progress is how technology seems to make people dumber. Consider, if you will, that just about every print provider on the planet still receives files for offset or digital printing that are missing high resolution fonts and contain 72 dpi, 2 x 3-inch photos that are meant to be 5 x 7 inches when printed. And when you, as a printer, inform the customer of the problem, they say, “Why can’t you print it? It looks fine on my screen! And whaddya mean CMYK?”

Convergence alert
But hope lies at the intersection of print and digital technology. At Graph Expo last fall I talked with David Murphy of HP, who shared a book titled Unsquaring the Wheel. It describes and demonstrates how special links–embedded in text, images, and readable by a cell phone or tablet app–can expand the content of a book to much richer media. By simply holding a phone’s camera over an image or block of text a reader could be taken to a video or web site, without the need to scan a dorky QR code. Imagine this in the context of a cookbook, or in an article on home repair, that links the user to a video or other content. The printed page–and the phone, by the way–is suddenly much more useful and valuable.

Similarly, direct mail is being influenced by data mining. The companies sending out bills or statements are hard at work refining the algorithms that dictate who receives what offer, and this is spilling over into very targeted direct mail. So far, only sophisticated, data-savvy service bureaus and marketing firms are doing much of this, but it will become mainstream over the next few years. And print providers who aren’t up to speed won’t be able to play. Sadly, we won’t be seeing the demise of generic direct mail right away, but it’s coming.

Both of these examples are going to be driven by inkjet printing. While not a revolutionary technology, spraying ink on pages, whether for books or bills or direct mail, is going to have a profound effect on printed communications. Inkjet presses and the software that drives them are parts of the next big leap in communications. It is not what the machines themselves do that is important. It is what they can do when combined with other communications technologies to alter the way we see and do things. And that is when the universe changes.

Now, if we can just figure out how to get people to understand fonts and image resolution.
The printing industry thinks in terms of technology and not in terms of science. In fact, it does not claim to understand a technology until it is a product. In general, it has no clue how things actually work and therefore is not able to develop the breakthrough technologies you look for. Due to this ignorance of science, the industry can't tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one before it becomes a product.

The printing industry does not want to understand the issues that are actually important and they have shown for many decades that they are not capable of understanding. They can't understand fundamental problems and therefore can't solve them. Problems that are actually not so difficult.

People will probably say that the industry does understand things very well, but that is the problem. If one does not accept that one does not really understand, then breakthroughs will not happen.

The development of inkjet and other new printing methods can almost totally avoid the scientific incapabilities of the printing industry. Non printing industry engineers and scientists can develop these new technologies based on fundamental knowledge. It is only when they wed themselves to poorly thought out colour management methods used in the printing industry, that the potential effectiveness of their technologies are affected.

Yes, it would be nice to have breakthroughs but the industry always argues against them until someone has to prove it to them.
Hello Noel, I might point you to a company outside Portland, Oregon, Retail Overview | Digimarc Solutions, that is developing some interesting technologies around completely hidden product-saturated barcodes that I can see being adopted or even mandated by big retailers. I've tested it and the impact on press-ready art is close to nil.

Good article otherwise

What About Profitability?

What about Profitability?
Offset yields new advantages

Read All About It