This time of year sees many of us setting worthy goals for ourselves: eat less, exercise more, read at least one book on information technology a week. Well, let's not get carried away, here. But while we are talking about books, I was much intrigued by a recent, lively exchange on the DigLib listserv on the subject of the utility of books for discussing digital information technologies. One camp vigorously rejected the idea, pointing out the incongruity of using this old medium of communication for conveying information about the newest. The other side made the counter-argument equally vigorously, pointing out, among other commendable attributes, the advantage of portability.
Print, it must be said, has much to recommend it. Indeed, researchers at Xerox PARC and elsewhere have invested substantial effort in investigating what's right with books. After all, books have been with us for several hundred years, which suggests that the technology has been reasonably successful, not to say remarkably adaptive, having accommodated new forms of paper, printing press technologies, and power. The printing industry was one of the earliest adopters of centralized electric power distribution toward the end of the nineteenth century, in part because access to power as needed supported the small scale print shops then characteristic of the industry.
It is also true that we can look at the development of the literary medium, independent of books, and see how content made assumptions about form and organization. For example, mass publication of newspapers assumed not only cheap paper and substantial literacy in the population but also stringers, reporters, and editors. One of the earliest profitable applications of digital communications - the telegraph - was the organization of the Associated Press (AP) in 1848, which provided participating newspapers preferential rates and gave rise to the familiar image of the cigar-smoking reporter who dictated copy via the telegraph to ink-stained editors who turned copy into sentences on the other end. Or alternatively, we can look at the long, involved novels by Charles Dickens with their numerous short chapters and recall that he published by the chapter and was paid by the word.
Without resorting to the old saw about the medium and the message, it is clear that there have been and remain feedbacks among both form and content. Print in its many guises, from academic journals to broadsides, has shaped and been shaped by the message it contains as well as by the existing production and communications technologies. So the circular advertising a lost cat stapled to a telephone pole in my neighborhood is both similar to and different from the journal in my mailbox. More to the point, it means that the digital world is form in search of content.
Many on-line experiments, D-Lib Magazine among them, are really adapting what we know about print to digital expression. Not surprisingly, much migrates, the obvious one being the importance of schedule. It is a lesson learned early by radio broadcasting and it is one D-Lib has re-learned. But we are, so far, less successful in understanding what is unique in digital that will unleash a form of expression we have yet to imagine. Certainly, in some of the sciences (e.g., biology and chemistry), publication in on-line journals enables authors to include supporting information that is simply not possible in print. Cost and space preclude re-printing all of the biological data, for example, and to include the data in paper render it only marginally more useful than when it existed in bench notes. The requirement in some respected professional journals that some kinds of data (e.g., protein sequencing) be submitted for inclusion in one of the major databases means that a new form of information resource is collectively built. This is, though, doing print one better, not doing communication differently.
So, perhaps this should be D-Lib Magazine's resolution for the new year - that we will work a little harder on doing it differently because we are digital. At least, we promise to think about it. Failing that, well, we can always eat less and exercise more.
Happy New Year.