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Media Visions of the Future

Kris Schnee

Looking back from the year 2010, it is easy for us to look at the publishing industry revolution of the last decade and say that it was all inevitable and obvious. While some trends were clear at the time, no one in 2000 could have foreseen all of the surprising innovations we have just witnessed.

Just as a flawless factory-made diamond sells for less than a certified “natural” one, we’ve learned that no recording can capture the excitement of a live music concert. The Napster debacle of the late 1990s seemed like the doom of the recording industry, but it only forced big-name bands to go back to doing what audiences loved best: playing for them in person, unedited and imperfect. It meant your favorite singers showing up at your town and actually needing your ticket money, not hiding in a recording studio somewhere. MP5s are here to stay despite the death of the original Napster site, especially abroad -- it’s estimated that 90 percent of the music sold in the New Chinese Republic is pirated. But bricks-and-mortar disc stores still exist, and still provide some cash to the music industry; it may be irrational to shop there when you can get the same songs for free on the Net, but when has rationality ever stopped anyone?

No one saw in 2000 how laughably irrelevant most of the “electronic book” concepts then on the market were. At the time, there were several competing standards for electronic publishing, all of them poor. On the hardware side, there were “readers” with most of the functionality of an ordinary book, only heavier and much more expensive. In software, Stephen King had just released his first online-only book, “Riding the Bullet,” only to find that it was pirated within hours, while Microsoft experimented with “ClearType,” a system meant to make people enjoy staring at their monitors for hours to read books. The fact was that few people wanted to use a computer to read if they could just as well use paper. Nor was there much economic incentive for the public to switch to e-book readers, since publishers kept all the extra profit they made from not having to give their customers a physical product.

The e-publishing market more or less stagnated until the technology improved, making the MetaBook possible. The MetaBook was ingenious because it was an imitation of the wood-pulp books everyone was already comfortable with -- only with a spine full of electronics and slick e-ink pages capable of rearranging their own text and then keeping it without using more electricity. They were expensive, but you only needed one, and the sacrifices made by the pioneers of e-publishing had created a small but respectable distribution system for electronic book files (EBFs) which rapidly grew once MetaBooks appeared. The development of non-transferable book licenses helped protect authors and publishers from Web pirates, but no security may ever be enough; thus the strange present situation in which you can use your high-tech MetaBook to read many old books, but fairly few new ones.

In the last century, there were “vanity presses” which would publish practically any book if the author would pay for the service; their customers were people who had books not good enough to earn a profit for a publishing house. By the 1990s vanity presses had evolved to take advantage of the Web; sites like FatBrain and ExLibris offered to publish any person’s no-frills book for free, profiting only from an Amazon listing and copies bought by the author for his friends. (These “pulps,” since they are also available as EBFs, make up much of the selection of texts for MetaBooks.)

Recently we’ve seen a surprising extension of the “vanity press” movement -- with the widespread construction of fiber-optic Net connections (already slightly obsolete), the world is now also deluged with amateur television programs. Formerly limited in number by FCC control of broadcasting frequencies, television programs can now be made available to the world from anyone with a camera or a good computer graphics program. Technology has unleashed the vast, diverse, and frequently pornographic creativity of the American people. Where “public television” used to mean an unkillable government TV bureaucracy, it now means millions of individual citizens in amateur show business, plus one unkillable government TV bureaucracy.

One major advantage of e-publishing combined with increasing computer power is the ease of translation. Early attempts at an online “universal translator” like BabelFish were barely serviceable for text-to-text language translation, but now books (and even audio, to an extent) can be transcribed by an ordinary desktop computer in minutes. The MIT Media Lab recently debuted a real-time voice-to-voice translator; we can only hope that it will soon take fewer than four strong men to carry.

There are a few worries about the power of the new media, though. It’s rumored that certain countries with state-run media, having switched completely to electronic formats, now have employees whose job it is to go back and “correct” the records of history. Some also claim that with the deluge of customized, ultra-specialized media, publishing is now even more ruthless than in the past -- it may be easy to get your ideas published, but how do you get attention except by being extreme or violent? And what happens when each person screens out all media not in line with his or her own ideology, and does the same for the children? This is a world where next-door neighbors can find it impossible to relate to one another. What do we do about it?

Remember to save this issue of The Tech, by the way. As of next week, September 1, 2010, we begin publishing exclusively in electronic format.