Disappearing Ink: The Word Transformed
The end of an era
By Bruce McKinney
Newspapers, as extraordinary as they are and have been, are simply a way to deliver information. They perform an important task but are only aggregator and delivery mechanism. The same is true for radio and television. They deliver information. The same is true for libraries. They aggregate and deliver information on demand. So too encyclopedias aggregate and deliver information. We have a history of relying on methods, sometimes for generations, but our goal is efficiency, the means ultimately unimportant. We do form emotional attachments as ten of millions of us have with books and newspapers but our commitment is more a matter of personal preference than efficiency and logic. Hence our children, free of our history and habits, increasingly find their news on line and it is only a matter of time before the written word is freed of all printed constraints. Future generations' commitment will be to the information, not to its form. Already twenty-somethings find newspapers to be yesterday's news. No doubt their children will feel the same way about their approach. All forms of delivery and dissemination are means, not ends, all personal commitments to form simply habits.
Books are also under pressure. In future print runs will be shorter and options for reading text electronically greater. Kindle may or may not be the answer but there's no question that paper copies, while not yet endangered, are marked for extinction.
Two hundred years ago we relied upon horses for transportation but boats, then trains and eventually cars, buses and airplanes one by one increased our options, reduced our cost and increased our range and speed. Today, driving on a country road we may see a horse or two grazing. They were once, for many, the best option for transportation. Times change.
Steamboats had an effective life of about one hundred years. Railroads dominated the post Civil War era. The car, in barely a century, opened the world to broader development and now enters a second life, re-engineered for cost efficiency and reduced pollution. Cars will become smaller and perhaps communities more compact. We acclimate to change.
The internet has been with us now for almost twenty years and it too is changing. It was once essentially a mail system but has become much more. Today, as an octopus might, it encompasses aspects of what newspapers, radio and television do. It provides some of what libraries generally and encyclopedias specifically offer. It provides the maps we used to obtain at gas stations, dinner, hotel and entertainment reservations we used to make in person, by phone or fax. We now see movie schedules and reviews, and do both casual and serious research without leaving home. We'll soon take courses at major educational institutions; perhaps at the London School of Economics, the Sorbonne and myriad American universities to earn composite degrees that are matched to our needs and interests rather than to the theories and ideas of college administrators. In a few clicks these days we bring ourselves up to speed and along the way are redefined both by what we learn and what we learn how to learn.
The internet is also organizing us into ever more defined communities. In the electronic ether, we may be part of a group of insurance adjusters, poets, inner-city school teachers, even booksellers or book collectors. The internet permits us to interact with others sharing our interests and ideas. Our communities were once our churches, schools, villages and towns. Today they are potentially beyond number and are increasingly online.
Disappearing Ink: The Word Transformed
Ready or not, newspapers go online
The internet, as an enabling technology, is different in that it is both aggregator and successor for many fields, areas and categories and increasingly unifies them all into a single search. It is sucking the life out of newspapers by providing faster lower cost classified advertising, immediate news, and composite news analysis. And what it does to newspapers it is also doing to books and libraries specifically, media generally, services broadly and information globally. It is an equal opportunity builder and destroyer. It delivers news and entertainment, provides research encompassing some aspects of what were separate and distinct communities and processes in the past. And as it does this, it undermines and destroys the usefulness and viability of many, almost certainly most, traditional forms of delivery. Newspapers are dying every day and in five years most will be trivia questions - can you name...? Every day announcements of more layoffs and shutdowns reach us via the internet, the very agent that is writing the final chapter on the newspaper. Magazines also struggle.
Libraries, the lions of civic pride, that stand in shaded places in towns and cities near their populations ever ready to be helpful, are themselves struggling for budget and to retain the customers who increasingly obtain online more in a blink than they can on the shelves of institutions that have, for generations, met the complex needs of their communities. Many libraries are now in their Andersonvilles, starved for appropriations, hoping for Presidential pardons. They too are disappearing into the internet's maw, they the eggs and flower churned into the great cake mix that is the internet, always increasing, inevitably disappearing.
Two hundred years ago the half life of the next big thing was forty years. It took from 1810 to 1850 for steamboats to dominate American transportation. Railroads, born in the 1830's, hit their stride in the 1860s and extended transportation to the far corners by the end of the century. The first car, a puny sputtering thing in 1894 became all the rage in twenty years and quickly turned America into the grid work of local, county, state and national highways that today is eight, even ten lanes in some places.
Information moved more slowly. Newspapers and books, once invincible only recently have become the inevitable victims of change. Libraries are still being built and may yet transform themselves into a functioning part of the future. They are public institutions and subject to more lenient accounting than corporations. Newspapers and books were permanent until they weren't. For libraries, they are permanent until and unless funding is withdrawn. Certainly, change is upon us now and there will be no going back.
These changes have been huge and we can predict they are nothing compared to the changes that are coming. The half-life of change was until recently measured in decades and is now calculated in years. The very concept of change is now inverse as change has become the constant. The steamboat lasted a hundred years, trains longer through their forms and purposes changed. Books have lasted five hundred and fifty years and libraries almost as long. In the next decade, we'll experience more change than we have seen in the last half millenium.
For those with an interest in the printed word we are left to consider whether the future's relationship to books will be logical, emotional or some combination of both. If entirely logical, there are going to be faster and easier ways to deal with the material. Books aren't going to be competitive as efficient repositories and distributors of knowledge. Only if the magic in the objects is transmittable will significant interest in them continue. In a perverse way, the internet which is at once the Wicked Witch of the North and also its Oz may, by turning printed material into searchable words and phrases provide future generations with a clarity on things past that yields a greater intimacy with older materials than has ever been thought possible. So stay tuned.