Wednesday, July 20, 2011

16354--Packing My Shredder for the Museum

Way back in the 20th century, in 1975 to narrow it down, a magazine writer made a prediction about the paperless office of the future.  That concept seemed to become more of a joke, and I made fun of it myself when I was old enough to get into the office workforce and witness the magnitude of paper not just used but wasted in an American corporation.  The reason for that was simple: technological advances that allowed us to communicate more efficiently also put the power to create high-quality documents in bulk quantity was placed into the hands of the masses.  As a writer, I suppose that should be of particular importance because as that technology developed it created desktop publishing.  Worldwide paper usage doubled during the last twenty years of the 20th century.  Some of us have had the privilege of watching the change come in its strange backward fashion. Paper usage apparently had to rise before it could fall, all because of the same technological advances. 

As the revolution that's reshaping the publishing industry continues to accelerate, the cry for going paperless is nearly forty years old now.  Despite the environmental impact (rising paper production has hurt nature) and the economic impact (declining paper usage closes companies and puts people out of work), I've still managed to see a strange humor in it all.

One of the personal observations has come in discussing the shift with my son.  We were talking about the things I did with my childhood Summers compared to the things he does with his.  Among the generational differences that most of us probably notice is that we seem to have been outside more and were more active thirty years ago.  Our daily lives were less integrated with electronics.  Sure, we had video games to play, but some of us were also around to experience a lack of video games transition into the phenomenon of Pong being the new and only item on the video game landscape.  When I explained how Pong used to draw a crowd, my kid looked at me with an incredulous gaze that I must've used during my grandparents' stories of the Great Depression.  I'm glad to have experienced the many shifts, though; these evolutions of technology and industry.  I feel like I'm more comfortable with technology than the boy, probably for a few reasons.  Having lived and understood more changes than the young one, despite most of my years being logged in the last century and most of his in this one, I think I'm handling recent events better than he.

I've always had books and was taught to appreciate them.  I like books.  I'm a writer, so I suppose it's a given.  However, even though I have a lot of books, my ebook collection is growing.  As the revolution is finally kicking the door in and making itself comfortable to watch the continued withering of the print book industry, my son holds up a hardcover book and explains how he loves their feel and will fight their passing.  I chuckle as I wonder if he is representative of those who would fight for the industry, given that in his broad definition of loving books it's acceptable to write in them and lose them.  My respect for them has never allowed such behavior and I still try to handle them with such care that many of my books don't even look like they've ever been read.

I'm a writer.  I have contact with other writers.  We still think of books when we think about our works being published, but we are also very much in touch with the reality of the intangible ebooks.  In fact, the part of my brain that handles processing science stuff really digs the concept of books composed of energy.  Any writer working today should be aware that ebook sales have overtaken pbook sales in the past year.  As a result, we writers have had to flip our marketing plans so that now ebooks are seen as essential and pbooks are increasingly being considered an optional product.  Ebooks are just so easy to produce.  Giving away free copies is a cheaper marketing tool than a business card.

This year Barnes and Noble went away.  This month Borders is following and Amazon began offering over a hundred thousand college textbooks as ebooks with price discounts as deep as 80%.  Wow.  That's going to have some economic impact all through the market.  As a former college student, I'm a little biased and see it as karma coming home to roost.

Like I said, some people are having a harder time with this than others.  When I came to this world, people were still spinning vinyl and I became very familiar with that and all manner of audiotapes.  Then, there were videotapes at home and laserdiscs and videodiscs.  The shift to CDs came in the 80s and I knew video wouldn't be far behind.  Audiovinyl passed on with a simple news story and I don't even recall a mention of whatever became of audiotapes.  Hell, I haven't been into a music store in so long, I couldn't even tell you whether or not they still make/sell those.  DVDs came along as I predicted and Blue-Ray discs are at work to replace those and a lot of home recording is handled by the wonderful DVRs.  I don't even want to count how many videogame platforms I've seen go by.  Did I mention Pong?  Try this: mom used to be a systems engineer for IBM, so I got to play with computers that took input from keypunch cards (go look it up on Wiki, we're not getting into all that), had a footprint the size of my house and delivered less computing power than I'm using to write this.  I'm used to change.  We live in an age where it happens at a noticeably accelerating rate.  Still, pbooks have been a constant companion.  They were here before anyone reading this and now we're watching them fade.  Next, it'd have to be cars and TV to have a similar cultural impact.

I imagine that it'll still be awhile before physical print stops and we stop reading and writing on paper altogether.  The books we have aren't going to just vanish and even if they did, it's not like we're going to lose the function of books.  They're being supplanted by a new information transfer technology.  And look at how long that has taken: almost seven hundred years.  We're talking about what is considered the most influential development in the last thousand years.  It's not just the form of the book that made an impact, though.  The important thing about the book was its mass reproducability.  That qualities that make a book a book allowed for it to be a means of information storage and transfer that hadn't been around before.  That doesn't just disappear overnight, which is part of the point.  Prior to mass production via printing press (1439), books had to be copied by the hands of a few literate people, a slow process that also made them precious commodities, but not just because of the time and effort, also because of information storage and transfer. 

Once upon a time, ideas and knowledge could be lost to the ages every time a couple of smart guys in different towns died without their brilliant ideas for a machine and the engine to run it ever coming together.  If only they could have passed on their ideas to others.  The Dark Ages could've been held at bay by backup copies?  Knowledge not spread can be lost and before you know it, you're out there trying to reinvent the wheel.  And if you die in an ironic wheel accident, somebody else will have to pick up the work from scratch.

I believe my kid's having a harder time with that concept because he's had a pretty static techno-media diet.  He's never lived in a world without cable TV, internet, DVDs, handheld videogames, portable music players...and pbooks.  He's only been through a fraction of what the preceding generation has experienced and is still languishing at an age where he's still in denial about not knowing everything.

Man, I'm glad I never went through that.

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