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The New Media

Tao Yue

The Information Superhighway. A road providing unfettered access to all types of information. A place where books, newspapers, television shows, music, movies, shopping, research, and other resources would flow to your home in electronic form in the touch of a button.

That was the view presented a decade ago by pundits breathlessly predicting the advent of the information age. We have seen much progress in infrastructure and services. You can get the day’s news without ever picking up a newspaper, find out what Roger Ebert thinks of a new film without tuning in to his show, and get MP3s of the newest album without having to make a trek to the nearest music superstore.

That is the technological promise, at least. Clearly, the MP3 example runs into copyright issues, but so do the first two. The New York Times may make their articles available for free on their web site, and Roger Ebert may post streaming clips of his television show, but they are free because there is no easy way to charge for them. A sporadic reader can buy a paper copy of the Times for a dollar, but the transaction fee on a similar online purchase makes it not worth the bother of charging. The same is true of a television show. Both can run advertisements, but as we all know, advertising on the Internet simply doesn’t do well enough pay the bills.

Micropayment technologies have not taken off, so credit cards, with their high transaction fees and alarming frequency of fraud, remain the only truly universal payment scheme online. But sites cannot lose money forever, and eventually they will figure it out or close down. In any case, these are the pioneers. Like the poor homesteaders of the nineteenth century who got a hundred and sixty poor acres of land and went into debt cultivating it, they are losing money now to pave the road for the future.

There is, however, another promise that has been stifled -- the promise of keeping works alive forever. Peeking into the past has always been difficult. Books go out of print, copies of rare works are lost to the elements, and those works that do survive are difficult to locate. Digital archiving promises to keep works in a pristine state, quickly accessible, and most importantly, easily searchable.

Some resources have taken full advantage of the technology. Newspapers traditionally used libraries on microfilm, for example, but they have made the leap to using full-text searchable PDFs located online. The MIT Libraries subscribe to several of these, including the ProQuest deep backfile of The New York Times -- every issue from 1851 to 1985.

But beyond these traditionally-archived areas, there is little else that has seized on the technology. There are certainly advantages to holding a book rather than an eBook (which currently sell far more than the paperbacks). Nevertheless, with xerography-based publish-on-demand technology, there is no reason for any book to go out of print. Given the electronic layout and text, a book can be printed and bound at relatively minimal cost. A quick search on amazon.com locates many out-of-print titles, some printed quite recently.

With the advent of CD burners, the lack of a glass master is no reason for a CD to be out of print either. There have been forays into the technology, including an early implementation that put kiosks in music stores, capable of burning some rarer CDs. But record labels are very uneasy nowadays over any nontraditional digital technology, and that early implementation only burned whole CDs, not selected tracks. Attempts to distribute that music as MP3s surely never even entered their minds.

Unfortunately, even specialty labels do not take advantage of the technology. They might strike a few thousand copies of a CD, have them sitting around for two or three years selling a few at a time, but eventually run out of stock. Case in point: Paul Robeson recordings.

Paul Robeson, an actor and singer out of place in a white industry, led one of the more interesting lives on record. He was almost like the late Byron White in a sort of Renaissance Man way that cannot exist in today’s specialized world -- a star football player while acting in dramas and winning awards at oratory, ultimately delivering the valedictory speech at his Rutgers commencement. His recordings had a very limited market, with several CDs packed with his work, but they are almost all out of print.

Oh well, eBay time. The place where laserdiscs and LPs find a new life long after their main market had disappeared. If the holders of copyright are not taking advantage of the promises of the information age, selling their wares as bits (or at least selling physical bits manufactured-on-demand), at least the collectors have a way to trade amongst themselves.