☞ The Subtle Magic of Catalyzing Change
The Importance of Catalysts, via a Case Study: Desktop Publishing and the Seybold Seminars
The process of innovation and progress is not just one of universe-denting advances and grand narratives. We valorize these stories, and they are important for understanding how our world changes. But it is also—and sometimes mainly—the processes of incremental change, recombining ideas, and tinkering that lead to innovative change. And essential within this is the role of individuals who can provide a kind of catalytic influence: people who can lower the activation energy of the adjacent possible.
So who are these kinds of people? It’s time for a small case study.
Seybold Seminars and Desktop Publishing
I recently finished reading a history of Adobe titled Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story by Pamela Pfiffner (published by Adobe Press in 2003). And over and over, it mentions Jonathan Seybold and his Seybold Seminars. As per Wikipedia:
Seybold Seminars focused on electronic publishing, printing and graphics. Its biannual events covered the industry in rapid transformation by computing technology. They provided forums for theoretical discussions and practical applications of that technology. Initially focusing on the issues surrounding computers delivering images and text to print, the Seminars came to deal with multimedia, online publishing, and rapid advances in color technology. The web became a dominant concern in May 1995.
But even outside these seminars, Jonathan Seybold provided a catalytic role even more informally.
As per Inside the Publishing Revolution, Seybold was single-handedly responsible for making key personal introductions and connections in the history of these fields and generally making sure that desktop publishing succeeded.
For example, Jonathan Seybold was involved in connecting Adobe to Linotype:
Publishing consultant Jonathan Seybold once again played matchmaker. He advised Warnock to go see Allied Linotype, a 100-year-old printing firm with roots in metal typesetting. PostScript had the potential to undermine Linotype’s business, but in what can only be described as a leap of faith, Linotype president Wolfgang Kummer licensed its treasured Times and Helvetica font families to Adobe and Apple. Plus, it agreed to work with Adobe to develop the first PostScript typesetter.
And Jonathan Seybold connected Apple and Aldus (of PageMaker) together, allowing desktop publishing to blossom:
“When I saw what Paul had, I said, ‘You have to talk to Apple,’ and I put him in touch with the product managers for the Macintosh and the LaserWriter,” says Seybold, who’d been hoping to see the confluence of personal computer and graphics-rich documents since the early 1970s. “The final missing piece of this puzzle was the software.”
Seybold was even involved in the term “desktop publishing” taking hold:
“At the time Aldus was writing the software, product manager John Scull showed me a list of five or so names of what to call this,” says Seybold of the nascent industry, “and I said I liked the phrase ‘desktop publishing.’ Scull said Paul wanted to call it that, too. So that’s what we called it.”
It even seems that Seybold was critical in connecting Adobe and Apple together, via Steve Jobs (though this was a bit ambiguous from the book’s text).
Adobe, Aldus, Apple: by bringing these groups all together and even connecting them to the world of more traditional printing—e.g. Linotype—the world of desktop publishing was finally able to come about.
As per this source: “It’s hard for people not of that era to understand how important the Seybold publication was, the vanguard of computers and printing, and the genius of Jonathan Seybold creating connections between the two with his Seybold Seminars. It’s not an exaggeration to say that desktop publishing (DTP) and web browsers would not have happened the way they did without him and his father John Seybold.” (emphasis added)
In Praise of the Catalysts
Jonathan Seybold is a premier example of someone who viewed their influence as a kind of catalyst. Seybold was not just trying to showcase technologies, but also to make change more likely at the intersection of technology and publishing. And this could be done with a newsletter and a conference series, for example. A bit more about these seminars can be seen in this oral history from the Computer History Museum:
This is a kind of powerful influence on progress, but it is far more subtle and less flashy. This is the role of the catalyst, a kind of diffusive power, helping to pollinate different ideas and combining them together.
This is the kind of influence that Alan Jacobs sagely seeks (emphasis added):
I don’t expect that anyone will be reading my stuff after I die — I expect that I’ll be wholly forgotten before I die, if I live to a good age — but I almost never think about that. At the end of Middlemarch George Eliot says of Dorothea that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” and that captures better than I can my convictions on this point. Diffusive is the key word: an influence that subtly spreads, perhaps without anyone noticing. I find that model of influence more encouraging and comforting than any hopes for fame could ever be.
Alex Komoroske has also described this kind of magic as that of the Radagast kind, as those who create “immense amounts of indirect and diffuse value.” They sprinkle ideas and connections about like magic.
There is a great deal of beauty and power in doing this, even though it is far less conspicuous than the world-coercing kind of influence that many yearn for. But it can make a difference.
These catalysts are the kinds of people who are highly acknowledged on scientific papers but might not be high-impact scientists themselves. And yet, when they die, the productivity of everyone they collaborated with declines. As per research into these kinds of people, “scientists who are helpful have a major impact on their colleagues' careers — and have been undervalued by a scientific enterprise that rewards individual achievement above all else.”
Venture capital as an industry is a kind of catalyst, acting as a midwife to innovation, through, among other things, advice and wisdom, connections and assistance with talent, and infusions of cash. But we can think in terms of this catalytic role even more broadly, either via creating new types of organizations that can act in this role, or even recognizing that more individuals should act in this role in a field or industry. Some examples of organizations that fit this role are DARPA, Speculative Technologies, Convergent Research, and philanthropic foundations. This is similar to the need for outlier roles in institutions, though I think being an outlier is necessary but not sufficient to being a catalyst.
But we can (and must!) go beyond scientific research and high-growth startups. For example, there are fellowship programs that provide training or raise people’s ambitions, such as the Roots of Progress fellowship and Emergent Ventures. Idea pollination and catalysis that happens in a profit-agnostic way might actually be the best means of creating a broad-based mechanism for change.
The futurist Buckminster Fuller described himself as a trim tab: these are “small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface on a boat or aircraft,” which in turn can affect an entire massive craft. In other words, the trim tab is something small that can have a very large impact.
We must construct more ways of creating and supporting these catalysts/trim tabs. Whether it is creating connections and interactions, making lists, hosting conferences, or identifying unifying themes, these are all valuable activities. So be more like Jonathan Seybold. Go and catalyze the future. ■
The Enchanted Systems Roundup
Here are some links worth checking out that touch on the complex systems of our world (both built and natural):
🜸 The beauty of finished software: “In a world where constant change is the norm, finished software provides a breath of fresh air. It’s a reminder that reliability, consistency, and user satisfaction can coexist in the realm of software development.”
🝳 A Coder Considers the Waning Days of the Craft: “Computing is not yet overcome. GPT-4 is impressive, but a layperson can’t wield it the way a programmer can. I still feel secure in my profession. In fact, I feel somewhat more secure than before. As software gets easier to make, it’ll proliferate; programmers will be tasked with its design, its configuration, and its maintenance.”
🝖 Children of the Geissler Tube: A fun and fascinating history.
🜹 The Little Book of Aliens by Adam Frank: “In this small book with big stakes, Frank gives us a rundown of everything we need to know, from the scientific origins of the search for intelligent life, the Fermi Paradox, the Kardashev Scale, the James Webb Telescope, as well as UFOs and their conspiracy theories.”
🝊 CQK Is The First Unused TLA: “Curious what the first ‘unused’ alphabetic acronym is, I have GPT-4 write a script to check English Wikipedia.”
🝳 Ritual technology: “Ritual technology operates on a different timescale. Underneath the fast twitch of compulsion loops is the slow thrum of ritual. Elder feedback systems.”
🝖 Venture Science Doctorate: Cohort 2 is recruiting now.
Until next time.