Re: e-books and heritage

Subject: Re: e-books and heritage
From: "Steven J. Owens" <puff -at- netcom -dot- com>
To: PHILA -at- Mail -dot- VIPS -dot- com
Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2000 16:49:08 -0800 (PST)

PHILA -at- Mail -dot- VIPS -dot- com writes:
> On the environmental issues, I agree with all of you who spoke for the
> trees, offlist and on. As a former employee of an air pollution control
> company, most of whose customers were pulp and paper plants, I am equally
> aware of the impact of paper on the environment. There are other solutions
> than denuding the wilderness, however: one is the use of recycled paper.

I spent a good chunk of time working on a variety of
environmental websites in 1995-96. A couple of facts to factor in;
first, there's a limit to how much you can recycle paper. The fibers
break down and in general you can only use recycled paper to
manufacture "lesser" papers like newspaper. Second, one of the big
problems in manufacturing paper is that you need two tons of tree to
make one ton of paper. Third, alternative technologies for paper
making are not being explored. For example, hemp, which grows in a
great many places that trees can't, makes excellent paper, and is
pound for pound more usable for paper than trees.

And are you familiar with the concept of "stripping" books in the
publishing industry? How many tons of trees are wasted as books are
shipped to stores, put on a display shelf for a few weeks, then have
their covers ripped off and shipped back to the publisher while the
body of the book is thrown in the trash? How much energy is wasted
in printing and shipping them to begin with?

> What frightens me is, first, the limited range of authors and titles
> that e-Books will be likely to offer; second, the factors that will
> determine that range;

Electronic publishing will likely at first have a leveling
effect. Anybody can publish electronically - look at the range of
private websites that amount to an entire new vanity press today. And
in fact there have been some experiments in the science fiction
publishing realm in putting the entire texts of books online. The
entire idea of commerce on the net is still in its infancy; the
technologies to support it are still being worked out. If some form
of "micropayment" scheme becomes practical and widespread, a great
many for-pay services will become available at a price well below the
"twitch" threshold of the average consumer.

Converting a new book to an audio tape is an entirely different
story than putting the text of a new book on a website for electronic
distribution. Dare I say it, most new books are written on word
processors and exist in electronic form before they reach the
publisher, and if not, they will soon after, on their way to the
presses. In any event, retyping a book in electronic format is a far
cry from repurposing it for an entirely different medium (audio).

The display technology isn't there yet - some of the digital
paper efforts may reach it - but when it gets there, watch out! The
problem then won't be the dwindling supply of published books, it'll
be the flood of online publishing, particularly as the new model
undermines the old model. We may see businesses like Kinkos offering
printing & binding into book format on demand. We may see libraries
as warehouses of printed books being replaced by electronic archives
with print-on-demand facilities.

For the more classically minded, who gasp in horror at the
thought that so many great works may fall by the digital wayside, fear
not! Project Gutenberg aims to put as much public domain literature
online for free distribution as possible. Digital publishing won't be
a tyranny of the mediocrity of the masses. It'll be liberation from
the material world of commercial printing and shipping.

You bring up the example of CD/DVD versus LP. Indeed, look at the
modern music industry. The recording industry ignored the web in '95
and '96 at its own peril, allowing independents to steal a march by
using the web for sales and promotion. When the litigious
entertainment law industry turned its attention to the web and began
suing the online CD stores to prevent them from selling mainstream
music online, it ended up being a shot in the arm for the independent
music scene, which had the web largely to itself for a year or so.

Now MP3 has become a defacto standard for electronic music. You
can fit about 1000 minutes of high quality music on a CD-ROM using MP3
format, or you can dynamically pull your music from a variety of
websites. Even at todays average bandwidth, that's feasible and it'll
only get easier as the technology improves. As with most fundamental
advances in communications technology, the underlying rules shift and
the power flows like water through the grasp of the status quo.

For my own sake, well, I'll never quite get over the pleasure of
having a battered, well-thumbed paperback book in my pocket. But I'll
also get the thrill of being able to carry an entire library of books
in the pocket next to it. I think that printed books as a part of our
environment will always be cherished in the human heart, just as
pictures on the walls instead of electronic displays will likely be
with us for centuries more. But let's not mistake the means for the

Steven J. Owens
puff -at- netcom -dot- com

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