A world without paper

April 01, 2012


MY great-grandmother was born into a world where the only method of transport was animal-powered.

She was a teenager when she saw her first train in India, which she described as a “miracle”, and she lived to fly around the world. She died at the cusp of the Internet age, and I often wonder what she would have made of it.

It is in the nature of things that during every period of human history, there are inventions and developments that people think are truly epoch-changing. But it is also possible to identify certain inventions and technologies that can truly be said to have changed the way the world worked, never to go back.

The internal combustion engine was one of them, electricity and telephony were of similar significance, as was the invention of the moveable metal type printing press.

The last was ‘invented’ by goldsmith Johann Gutenburg in 1440. (The method of moveable type printing was originally invented in China earlier in 1041AD, using clay type. It did not replace the then traditional method of printing from individually carved wooden blocks because of, it is conjectured, the numerous thousands of characters in the Chinese language.)

But in 1440, Gutenburg’s work changed the world. Before that, there was no method of mass producing the written word and the world of ideas was almost exclusively the preserve of the priestly and other elites. By the end of the century after the printing press was invented, though, books were being mass produced in over 2,500 European cities.

And now, we are living in an era where something we have lived with and the presence of which we have taken for granted for nearly six centuries seems to be on the cusp of being replaced by newer technology.

The development of the Internet by American computer scientist Vinton Cerf in 1973, and the worldwide web in 1989 by British computer scientist Timothy Berners-Lee is giving the printing press a run for its money, and then some.

I may be overstating matters in saying that the word, physically printed on paper, may be going out of commission. But it is certainly undeniable that the online method of distribution is gaining more and more currency (and saving more and more trees). And one of the victims — beneficiaries? — is an institution much more venerable and at least as influential as Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced last month that it had decided to cease the publication of its famous line of reference books — once an essential that graced the bookshelves of the well-to-do and erudite. It will, instead, concentrate on its digital offerings.

“We’d like to think our tradition is not to print,” said company president Jorge Cauz, “but to bring scholarly knowledge to people.” And why not, for which parent — no matter how smitten with the idea of a college-educated child — would spend upwards of $1,000 on a print edition, which last ran to 32 volumes, when a basic online subscription costs a mere $1.99 a month?

Resultantly, the 2010 edition of the Britannica is the last that we will be able to leaf through in the traditional fashion. Apparently, some 4,000 sets of that edition remain in the market for sale. Cauz said that over the past few years, the print edition accounted for less than one per cent of the company’s revenue: “The market is not there”, he pointed out. Meanwhile, the online edition of the encyclopaedia has been available for 20 years, and is updated virtually constantly.

Meanwhile, the newspaper industry also initially took a hit, both through readers switching to online sources of news and the global economic downturn which caused a general tightening of the belt, particularly in the US. Many of the major newspapers have adapted revenue-generating models to suit the Internet, and most offer continually updated online versions.

While observers say that it no longer seems as likely as it did three years ago that the newspaper will disappear, certainly new business models have to be (and are in many instances in the process of being) created.

And there are a few instances where prominent newspapers have had to favour online presence, such as the Christian Science Monitor which in 2008 ceased its daily print edition in favour of a daily online and weekly print format.

A printed product that you can physically leaf through is beginning to look less like the smart option. This is not just because of the number of trees that are pulped every year to make paper — and this is an entirely valid concern in an increasingly resource-scarce world — but because a reduction in printing costs means that the product can be sold for less too.

E-books and newspaper, magazine and encyclopaedia subscriptions generally cost less than the paper version. And then, there is the fact that online records can be breathtaking in the size of their scope and accessibility. Finding a New York Times edition from 50 years ago in paper is a bit of a challenge, but online it is a mere click away.

Yet when I was given a Kindle, I had strong reservations. I like my books to, well, be books: I appreciate the texture of the page, the note written in the margin by some other reader, even the ink stain left when the material made someone start in surprise. Also, I like collecting books and derive pleasure from having them neatly lined, ready to provide information or entertainment as the case may be.

And yet, I now see the point of the ability to carry around with you, in one small paperback sized device, a library of hundreds of books and a capacity so large as to be meaningless.

The march of time produces unexpected results, but the road is always interesting. The work of Cerf asnd Berners-Lee may in time prove of even more significance that Gutenburg’s, though he was the one who paved the way.

The writer is a member of staff.