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«WILL BOOKS BECOME THE DUMB MEDIUM? Eli M. Noam Editor's note: This article is taken from a speech delivered at the Virginia Tech symposium The Impact ...»

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Eli M. Noam

Editor's note: This article is taken from a speech delivered at the Virginia Tech

symposium "The Impact of Technology on the Learning Environment," held on

March 30-31, 1998. The speech was also given at the national Educom conference

and appeared in Educom Review, vol. 33, no. 2. It is reprinted in VIA with


"Print is not dead. Print is not dying. Print is not even vaguely ill."

W. Crawford and M. Garnaw [American Library Association, 1995] Scholars and books have always had a symbiotic relation. More than 2,800 years ago, in Nineveh and then Alexandria, libraries were the place where scholars congregated and formed the first universities. Later, after Gutenberg, books contributed to the emergence of universities as centers of the sciences. Today, inside universities vast numbers of monographs, edited volumes, and periodicals are laboriously produced and lovingly consumed. A large publishing industry, much of it privately owned, has grown around this relationship.

It is thus, perhaps, a shock to contemplate that this happy situation is likely to unravel.

And it is doubly ironic that this will take place just as information, knowledge, and scholarship are more important than ever.

But if we look clearly ahead rather than nostalgically behind, the conclusion is inescapable that books as a physical entity will become, in time, a secondary tool in academia, their role usurped by the upstart electronic media.

And as books cease to be the mainstay of the leading edge of knowledge, their role becomes primarily that of an entertainment medium--and not even one of the creative leading edge. Culturally, they descend to secondary status. And economically, the firms associated with them--publishers--decline.

This conclusion will not be readily accepted. Too strong is the emotional attachment to

the concept of "book." But consider another word loaded with positive connotation:

"bread." Yet the consumption of bread has declined, and its centrality as a food item is nowhere near where it used to be.

I love books. I've written or edited almost 20 of them, and I own many, too many. So I don't like my own conclusion. Nor am I unmindful of following to the edge of the cliff in the footsteps of distinguished mis-prognosticators. Thomas Edison, for example, confidently predicted in 1913 that books would be rapidly substituted, as an instructional medium, by film. Later, radio, TV, and simple computers were expected to have similar impacts. We are still waiting. Marshall McLuhan, in the Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), welcomed the demise of books as an end to homogenization, commodification, the nation state, and practically everything else. Anthony Smith, in Goodbye Gutenberg (1980), feared the worst for print but was braced for it. Yet there are more books published today than ever before--65,000 in America alone and more books are bought (and possibly even read) than ever before, more than two billion of them. And the publishing industry reassures us and itself constantly, ritualistically, and publicly of the book's indispensability. So where is the problem?

It is characteristic of individuals, institutions, industries, and entire societies to misjudge the future. We do so by simultaneously exaggerating, belittling, and fighting change. On the one hand, we tend to succumb to the various merchants of hype, overestimate the short-term spread of technology based on its salutary impact--"a helicopter in every garage," "atomic power too cheap to meter," the "Internet in every classroom." On the other hand, we tend to underestimate the deeper long-term impact of fundamental technologies. The automobile and the radio were seen as convenient substitutes to the horseless carriage or wireless telegraph, rather than as the agents of revolutions in cityscape and mass media in living patterns and politics.

But when the realization dawns that the mere convenience is also a sorcerer's apprentice, attitudes change from benign wonder to hostile defensiveness.

Thus it was with new media from times immemorial. The old media, calling the shots, gang up on the new medium as uncouth and glorify themselves as purveyors of culture.

Even writing, when it replaced oral culture, was attacked.

Plato, in Phaedrus, lets the inventor of writing be criticized by the ruler, who


This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it.... You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing.... [T]hey will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing....

When printing emerged in the late 15th century it, too, had its detractors:

"The world has got along perfectly well for six thousand years without printing and has no need to change now."

(Filippo di Strata) "Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices.... The simple reason is that copying by hand involves more diligence and industry."

(Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes) Later, when movies were being introduced and the public favored vaudeville to Shakespeare, traditionalists were outraged and sought a ban against its uncultured distractions. And when sound was introduced into motion pictures, musicians' unions agitated that "sound movies are economic and cultural murder." The telephone was said by a noted psychiatrist to drive people permanently insane. And when the radio arrived, researchers noted that "[p]arents have become aware of a puzzling change in the behavior of their children...."

When television began in the late '40s, it negatively affected the dominant medium of popular culture, film, which tried to suppress it. When Ronald Reagan started to work for TV, he could never make a Hollywood movie again. He had to look for another line of work. At the same time, print, the dominant medium of intellectual culture, also crusaded against television, attacking it as a medium, not just its particular programs, channels, or industry structure.

Later, when cable TV emerged, it was "deja vu all over again." The broadcasters, now the new media establishment, fought cable tooth and nail, ostensibly to defend free viewing, public interest standards, and national cohesion.

Today, with computer-based multi-media in ascendance, the question is how they are treated. In the '50s and '60s, many believed that computers would surely create a 1984like state, and the computers' image was the centralized and all-knowing huge piece of equipment. Data protection laws were passed, based on the "Big Brother" image of technology, just as computers became "distributed." But when the real 1984 rolled around, the fear had become that 14-year-olds would use computers to start a nuclear war of their own.

Today, when computer usage is beginning to be democratic and when computers are becoming a communications device, the Cassandra industry is out in full force, and an avalanche of neo-luddite literature is rolling in, lapped up by traditional media. Extremist potential. Isolation. Impressionable children. Sex. Violence. Games. Anti-authority.

Information poverty. Commercialization. Bad grammar. Bad manners. Bad attitude. This is not to belittle these concerns or to give credence to the similar myopic Pollyannas of the computer industry, but rather to observe that it seems that, predictably, the new media kid on the block is under attack by its elders. And just as predictably, these attacks will not succeed, and traditional media will be weakened as the new ones succeed. Thus it was with oratory, with theater, film, radio, broadcast TV, and cable. And thus it will be with books.

Let's clarify the term. For purposes of our discussion, the term "book" refers to its classic manifestation--bound volumes of paper sheets upon which text is printed. (There are, of course, variations on that theme, but they need not overly concern us.) Books exist in many settings, and it is best to analyze them specifically rather than generically. So let us turn to the future of the book in the university.


Books exist in academia in four major types:

• texts, as source material for analysis,

• textbooks, for instruction,

• scholarly monographs, for broader and deeper discussions,

• academic journals and edited volumes, for narrow research findings.

The first type of books--source materials--are least affected by the emerging electronic information technology. But even here, rare books will be increasingly stored electronically for better protection and wider accessibility.

The second type will change enormously. Textbook publishers will gain. But textbooks will lose. The reason is that the publishers' function in the future will extend far beyond providing books as supplementary aides to courses. Instead, the publishers will increasingly provide courses themselves. They will become course publishers.

The reason is partly economic. It is hard to imagine that the presently prevailing low-tech lecture system of university instruction will survive. Student-teacher interaction is already under stress by the widening gulf between basic teaching and specialized research.

More importantly, the interaction comes with a big price tag. If alternative instructional technologies and credentialing systems can be devised, there will be an out-migration from classic campus-based higher education.

Electronic forms of instruction are inferior to face-to-face teaching (though the latter is often romanticized); rather, they can be provided at a dramatically lower cost. At present, private universities charge a tuition of nearly $50 per lecture hour per student, not counting most of the public and philanthropic support they receive or the opportunity cost of students' time. With such Broadway-show-sized prices--and without the latter's entertainment value--alternative providers will inevitably enter. It is likely that the commercial publishers will put together an effective and continuously updated teaching package, making the traditional teaching of universities look boring in comparison, just as Sesame Street has raised the expectations of pupils for a lively instructional style.

Already available on tape are the "Greatest Lectures by America's Su Teachers," distributed by a company advertising itself as "your own private university, staffed exclusively by a 'dream team' of America's best lecture professors." A curriculum, once created, could be offered electronically, not just to hundreds of students nearby, but to tens of thousands around the world. It could be provided by universities seeking additional revenues in a period of declining cohorts, though probably not at first by elite colleges, which guard their scarcity value.

The ultimate providers of an electronic curriculum will not be universities becoming televersities (they will merely break the ice) but rather commercial firms. Textbook publishers will establish sophisticated electronic courses using the most effective and prestigious lecturers.

They could control the resale market by customization and by providing it on-line to subscribing students only; this permits sophisticated price discrimination. And they could charge substantially higher prices than for a mere book.

So the news is good for those textbook publishers that can move to the next stage though not for textbooks. In contrast, the future is bleak for the publishers of serious scholarly books. Here, the market consists basically of individual specialists and of libraries. When it comes to individual buyers, scholarly books will have to compete against the many other sources of information available to readers, many of them more rapidly disseminated, easier to search, easy to re-purpose, and more suited to the short-attentionspan generation facing the information-glut society.

Again, one advantage for electronic dissemination is that its pricing could be highly differentiated once technology makes arbitrage and resale inconvenient. An on-line, download relationship can support multiple prices, just as with the airlines, and in contrast to the relatively primitive hardcover/softcover price differentiation system for physical books.

Academic libraries are the second major category of buyers of scholarly books. That market must, by necessity, contract. In the past, it was said that a university was as strong as its library. But here, too, the economics and technology change everything.

Most branches of science show an exponential growth of about 4-8 percent annually, with a doubling period of 10-15 years. Comprehensive library collections have become unaffordable. But at the same time, electronic alternatives have become powerful in storage, broad-ranging in content, and efficient in retrieval. Therefore, libraries are gradually shifting from investment in the physical presence of information to the creation of electronic access. Soon the combination of laptop and phone line will serve just as well anywhere, anytime.

This will lead publishers to issue many books on an on-line basis and charge the reader per use or the institution on a site-license basis. Readers would peruse the work on comfortable hand-held screens or print it out as a near-book.

Many authors will move to self-publishing. Especially the better-known scholars do not require the marketing role of publishers. Desk-top publishing is reducing the technical importance of publishers; and on-line access reduces their role in distribution. Where authors seek rapid recognition rather than below-minimum wage royalties, they will often even give the product away. In other cases, a download charge will exist. The final product may turn out to be a bit sloppier, but most authors and readers would gladly trade split infinitives for speedy publication. In many cases, departments, centers, or professional associations would become on-line publishers. Yes, academics crave the prestige of a publishing pecking-order.

But these could be provided as well out- side the traditional book model. Exclusivity, standards, and gatekeepers do not require ground-up trees for their survival.

The fourth type of books in the higher education sector are bound academic journals.

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