Roll over Gutenberg - tell books the news

The Net, with its tens of thousands of sites, is a new wonder of the world
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The Independent Online
At one of the meetings during the Edinburgh Book Festival I was asked to address the question whether CD-Roms, the Internet, electronic media etc, threaten the book. What I first wanted to get across is how inchoate the new medium is. We don't even know what to call it, other than "the new medium". First there was print, then radio, followed by television; now what?

Yes, it is software, but not all software is used to facilitate communication. Yes, it is both CD-Roms and the Internet, two different ways of delivering information to your computer screen, the one by means of a compact disc, the other by means of a telephone link. But the little, hand-held electronic pet, the Tamagotchi, which beeps when it needs to be fed, bathed or exercised, or else it dies: is this an example of the new medium?

Yes, computer-generated entertainment such as games and electronic pets and creatures which you can cause to run around your screen, are part of it. Yes, it is both a leisure activity and a business tool - you can do such things as participate in auctions of surplus airline seats via the Internet if you wish.

The new medium is inchoate in a second sense: it has many technical shortcomings. The computer screen is not a convenient way of reading large amounts of text. I like to print out any e-mail message of more than 100 words or so. The quality of the individual formats - text, sound, still picture, moving image - is poor to average. Moreover the medium requires more adeptness by the user than print, radio or television.

This medium is struggling to become a channel of mass communication. It will succeed only when it is easy to use and reliable in operation, and when it finds its own voice. So far as technical advances are concerned, the idea of providing simple Internet access via the TV screen in place of an expensive personal computer is being developed. Unfortunately, so- called Web TV provides inferior resolution and you would have to buy a keyboard if you wanted to use it for e-mail. More promising is the notion of introducing a cut-down version of the PC, the so-called network computer, which would allow you to call up the computing power you need when you need it. Work is also being done on upgrading the "pipe" - the telephone wire or cable that carries digital information from one computer to another.

By finding its own voice, I mean a process comparable to the early development of the cinema. The cinema quickly stopped being the theatre on screen and became a new discipline. In the same way this new medium is not simply books on screen, or a melange of the older media. It is on its way to something.

To see what direction this might be, look at what has been successful so far and seems to be authentically of the medium. E-mail is fast becoming a universal means of communication. An electronic version of the letter post, it is cheap, it is fast, it is global; and it has even engendered a special form of English that is something between that of a letter and a telephone conversation.

On-line retailing of books and records is growing apace. Like many people, I browse book reviews in newspapers and magazines rather than bookshelves in a bookshop. I buy books on the Internet because I can place my order at any moment, because 10 times more titles are available than a bookshop can provide, because I know what I am buying, so there are no issues of quality, and because the prices are good even when postage is added in.

With Encarta, Microsoft has shown that the combination of media - multimedia - and the power to manipulate data and to search through it rapidly, brings the encyclopaedia to a level which is far superior to what books can achieve. Computer games are the fiction of the new medium; the "shoot-em-ups" are equivalent to pulp fiction, a game like Myst is more akin to Tolkien. For the players they are as absorbing as reading a novel.

The Internet itself, with its tens of thousands of web sites, created alike by individuals, by institutions, by corporations, by local and national governments, is a new wonder of the world. It is a vast, global, randomly assembled store of information, growing every day, which can be searched with remarkable facility and at very low cost. It is a world library that will shortly be superior to the American Library of Congress and the British Library combined. And the Internet doesn't employ a single librarian.

These are the successes. Apart from Encarta, none of them directly threatens books, newspapers and magazines. History shows that the new media developed during the past century have not obliterated their predecessors as, say, the combined forces of the railway and the motor vehicle extinguished horse-drawn transport. The cinema left the theatre intact; TV did not overwhelm radio. The losses were minor. Music hall died; cinema largely gave up documentaries to TV; books are losing encyclopaedias.

But the indirect threat is immense. The box next to the computer screen is an extremely powerful device. The new medium is the most participative of all. And it is effortlessly global. I would guess that 95 per cent of its potential is unrealised. It really is inchoate. But there is a phrase we use which may be more prescient than we realise: we ask whether so-and-so is computer literate or not. Already we equate computers with literacy.

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