Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thinking About the New Technology

After my post on Friday about Google signing a deal with the makers of the Espresso Book Machine, reader Sandra Ferguson asked the following question:
So, do you think this is the wave of the future? Should we be cheering? Or holding our collective writing breath?
I promised Sandra an answer today.

I don't know that I ever said this before on this blog, but my original major in college was History. My first career plan was to become an archeologist. Financial pressures led to my downsizing that vision to teaching history . . . at least initially. Then my life took another direction altogether. But studying the past remains an avocation.

In The Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says:
". . . truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man's son may, but at the length truth will out."
With apologies to Shakespeare, one thing my studies of the past has taught me: Technology will out.

By that I mean that efforts by companies or cultures to suppress technology have almost always failed. Technology wins in the end. Trying to stop technological progress never works.

In Lawrence Lessig's 2008 book Remix, the Stanford law professor describes John Philip Sousa's testimony before Congress in 1906:
"He had come to Washington to ask that Congress 'remedy a serious defect in the...law, which permits manufacturers and sellers of phonograph records...to appropriate for their own profit the best compositions of the American composer without paying a single cent therefor"--a form of 'piracy' as he called it."
Not satisfied with his tirade against phonograph manufacturers, Sousa railed again the "cultural emptiness that mechanical music would create." He dramatically declared that human vocal cords "would be eliminated by a process of evolution."

Sousa's histrionic tirade seems quaint today. But his fears were very real to him in 1906. Although he succeeded in changing U.S. copyright law, he was unable to stop technological progress.

And I guess that sums up my thinking on the state of publishing today. I believe the following:

1) U.S. copyright law is antiquated and needs to be overhauled.

2) Writers and publishers need to stop trying to stop the new technology and figure out how to make it work for them.

3) The developed world needs to move outside its own egocentric needs and recognize how the new technology can advantage those who are not as well off as we are. As I've previously stated, according to the World Bank's Poverty and Growth blog, the print-on-demand technology of the EBM "offers the opportunity to deliver development knowledge and content to students, practitioners, media, and simply interested individuals in a way they could not be reached before." The prohibitive costs of printing, shipping and warehousing books for underdeveloped nations limits the amount of printed material that can be provided to poor areas of the globe.

EBM machines strategically placed on a regional basis around the third world would make available information in their own language to peoples who have never before had access to books.

So while I acknowledge that the ground under the publishing world is shifting, instead of working on stopping the earth tremors, I'm focussed on learning how to locate the footholds and practicing how to hop nimbly from rock to rock.

1 comment:

Sandra Ferguson said...

Thought provoking, and I couldn't agree more that the tighter we hold to 'dated' technology, the more we slow down our (US based-publishers) entrance into the world economy.

How I'd love to see this for text books. Think of the $ volume that could be saved for public school institutions to be spent on higher teacher wages! Think of how quickly, and economically, text books could be updated, so that truly the most cutting edge information gets to students! Think of the savings for financially-struggling college students to get this information at a reasonable price. How frightening to think that college text-books can run $500.00 and up for a semester. Imagine how many books you and I could purchase for $500.00 each 4 months!

Don't we want the world to read? Then the bottom line it needs to be affordable to do so. Technology that makes that goal achievable needs to be embraced not burned at the proverbial stake.

Great insight, Maya, and thanks for answering my question.