The Day Print Died

A milestone today: Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer be published in print. It’s time to finally admit that print is dead, and, even with a few notable risks remaining, that universally-available network-based information is now all that matters.

I heard on CNBC this morning that Encyclopedia Britannica, that font of all western knowledge, will no longer be published in print form anymore. The importance of these volumes cannot be underestimated - they've been published in print for over 200 years and were for many, myself included, the starting point for any research done during a high-school career. I was fortunate that my parents actually purchased a set for my home, and I spent many happy hours - really - exploring the vast realm of information in those pages. In one sense, then, I lament the passing of print.

But, during my college years, I had the privilege of working on the first hypermedia system, FRESS. Being of a systems-programmer inclination, I mostly worked on systems issues - device support (FRESS could run on more devices than were natively supported by the operating system (CP-67/CMS), including an Imlac PDS-1D over 9.6 Kbps leased line, and a custom-microprogrammed Digital Scientific Meta-4 computer connected over a virtual (yes, virtualization is nothing new) channel-to-channel adapter that I wrote much of the code for), memory management, cross-assemblers, APIs, command macros, and similar nerdy stuff. It was easy to see how the hypermedia model could incorporate all information types and classes, and that hypermedia thus really was the key to the future of information systems. I wasn't surprised by the Web, then, but I found the choice of its markup language oddly anachronistic. Well, who cares, it worked.

Anyway, in writing the justification for my undergraduate program, a requirement of same, I noted that my personal goal was to get all of human knowledge and information online - the computer as library, not just number-cruncher (which is what most of the people in the Applied Math department at Brown thought was important, creating all kinds of challenges for someone who wanted to study computer science before there really was such a thing). I was always troubled by a statement made by my undergraduate advisor (and the father of FRESS and hypermedia), Andy van Dam, that "anything in print is out of date". I could envision the day when books made of paper would exist only in museum archives, and as collector's items. It was easy to get carried away by the concept: about 15 years ago, I stood on the floor of Town Meeting here is Ashland, Massachusetts, and argued that an investment of several million dollars in a new library was a waste of money. I barely escaped with my life.

No matter; here we are. We no longer need buildings in which to store books, except, again, as museum pieces. We've solved most of the problems inherent in getting all of the world's knowledge and information online. Encyclopedia Britannica lives on in a form that's accessible, convenient, cost-effective, and of far greater value (the search function alone obsoletes print), I would argue, than as print. I do worry that the vast amount of stuff now being created is furthering a need greater than ever for librarians and other professional information-finders, and that these people are in short supply. And I also worry that the lack of a requirement for editors and publishers in most cases, anyway, is allowing tons of misinformation to propagate; Encyclopedia Britannica is clearly a counterexample here, so there is hope. And I worry that it's incredibly easy to re-write history, not just update it, a la 1984. But I am, in the end, regardless content to take the bad with the good; even information in print demands a certain degree of skepticism. So, then, no lament for the end of an era; I salute Encyclopedia Britannica for a commitment to the modern era, even if I personally use Wikipedia more often than that esteemed resource. Economics, as always, remains a key variable in the information equation.


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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