shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
We (Still) Have a Long Way to Go

Just when you thought the Internet was a broken link shy of ubiquity,
along comes the head of the Library of Congress to remind us how many
people still don't get it.
 
The Librarian of Congress, James Billington, gave a speech on April 14
to the National Press Club in which he outlined the library's attitude
toward the Net, and toward digitized books in particular. Billington
said the library has no plans to digitize the books in its
collection. This came as no surprise because governmental digitizing
of copyrighted material would open a huge can of worms.
 
What was surprising were the reasons he gave as to why the library
would not be digitizing books: "So far, the Internet seems to be
largely amplifying the worst features of television's preoccupation
with sex and violence, semi-illiterate chatter, shortened attention
spans, and a near-total subservience to commercial marketing. Where is
the virtue in all of this virtual information?" According to the April
15 edition of the Tech Law Journal, in the Q&A section of his address,
Billington characterized the desire to have the contents of books in
digital form as "arrogance" and "hubris," and said that books should
inspire "a certain presumption of reverence."
 
It seems obvious, but it bears repeating: Billington is wrong. 
 
The Internet is the most important thing for scholarship since the
printing press, and all information which can be online should be
online, because that is the most efficient way to distribute material
to the widest possible audience. Billington should probably be asked
to resign, based on his contempt for U.S. citizens who don't happen to
live within walking distance of his library. More importantly,
however, is what his views illustrate about how far the Internet
revolution still has to go.

The efficiency chain
 
The mistake Billington is making is sentimentality. He is right in
thinking that books are special objects, but he is wrong about
why. Books don't have a sacred essence, they are simply the best
interface for text yet invented -- lightweight, portable,
high-contrast, and cheap. They are far more efficient than the scrolls
and oral lore they replaced.

Efficiency is relative, however, and when something even more
efficient comes along, it will replace books just as surely as books
replaced scrolls. And this is what we're starting to see: Books are
being replaced by digital text wherever books are technologically
inferior. Unlike digital text, a book can't be in two places at once,
can't be searched by keyword, can't contain dynamic links, and can't
be automatically updated. Encyclopaedia Britannica is no longer
published on paper because the kind of information it is dedicated to
-- short, timely, searchable, and heavily cross-referenced -- is
infinitely better carried on CD-ROMs or over the Web. Entombing annual
snapshots of the Encyclopaedia Britannica database on paper stopped
making sense.
 
Books which enable quick access to short bits of text -- dictionaries,
thesauruses, phone books -- are likely to go the way of Encyclopedia
Britannica over the next few years. Meanwhile, books that still
require paper's combination of low cost, high contrast, and
portability -- any book destined for the bed, the bath or the beach --
will likely be replaced by the growth of print-on-demand services, at
least until the arrival of disposable screens.
 
What is sure is that wherever the Internet arrives, it is the death
knell for production in advance of demand, and for expensive
warehousing, the current models of the publishing industry and of
libraries. This matters for more than just publishers and librarians,
however. Text is the Internet's uber-medium, and with email still the
undisputed killer app, and portable devices like the Palm Pilot and
cell phones relying heavily or exclusively on text interfaces, text is
a leading indicator for other kinds of media. Books are not sacred
objects, and neither are radios, VCRs, telephones, or televisions.

Internet as rule
 
There are two ways to think about the Internet's effect on existing
media. The first is "Internet as exception": treat the Net as a new
entrant in an existing environment and guess at the eventual adoption
rate. This method, so sensible for things such as microwaves or CD
players, is wrong for the Internet, because it relies on the same
sentimentality about the world that the Librarian of Congress
does. The Net is not an addition, it is a revolution; the Net is not a
new factor in an existing environment, it is itself the new
environment.
 
The right way to think about Internet penetration is "Internet as
rule": simply start with the assumption that the Internet is going to
become part of everything -- every book, every song, every plane
ticket bought, every share of stock sold -- and then look for the
roadblocks to this vision. This is the attitude that got us where we
are today, and this is the attitude that will continue the Net's
advance.
 
You do not need to force the Internet into new configurations -- the
Internet's efficiency provides the necessary force. You only need to
remove the roadblocks of technology and attitude. Digital books will
become ubiquitous when interfaces for digital text are uniformly
better than the publishing products we have today. And as the
Librarian of Congress shows us, there are still plenty of institutions
that just don't understand this, and there is still a lot of
innovation, and profit, to be achieved by proving them wrong.



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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source