PUBLISHING / Virtual libraries

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The Independent Culture
William Gibson's literary vision of Cyberspace is overwhelming. The visitor flies around it, twisting between geometrical mountains of data and always in danger from the black 'ice' of security programs. This nicely illustrates the superiority of books over computer screens as maps of the imagination; for nothing in real computer networks is half as interesting. Gibson invented cyberspace long before it was technically possible. Now it exists, no one in it has been able to find a better vision of what they are up to than his. This is a pity, because the strength of computer-based publishing lies not in being a virtual Bosnia but a virtual library.

In general, books are better at organising information and displaying it to produce pity, terror, or a firm sale. But computers are better at cataloguing. And computerised texts are much easier to search and index. Huge quantities of classic (out of copyright) literature can be read online. So, too, can the catalogues of most university libraries: 54 at last count in Britain alone, and a great many more in the USA.

The speed and immense plasticity of this form of publication has made it very useful for scientific exchanges. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has made it a model for the workings of all human consciousness; indeed the specialised journal Psycoloquy, which deals with issues of consciousness, is only published electronically, from Princeton.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an American pressure group set up by a software millionaire and a lyricist for the Grateful Dead (a mushware millionaire, perhaps), maintains a directory of more than 140 electronically published journals, ranging from the Electronic Hebrew Users Newsletter to the Alumni Journal of the Technical University of Wroclaw.

Yet the most promising development for the future has been the hardest to foretell. This is the rise of electronic mail exchanges as a means of collective self-expression. They are more spontaneous than normal writing, more considered than speech. Anyone who has worked in a networked office knows how irresistible is digital flirtation. It can only be a matter of time before someone writes an electronic Liaisons Dangereuses.