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75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006

Edward Tenner 


“Power to the People” was a 1960s slogan embraced by the electronic visionaries of the 1970s, who heralded a new era of universal communication and access to knowledge. Thirty years after the birth of the personal computer, thirteen years after the World Wide Web, their goals seem within reach if not already achieved. We, the people, have been empowered. We can send what amount to free telegrams, create and distribute photographs and videos almost without marginal cost, broadcast our ruminations through blogs, and browse many of the world’s greatest art museums and library collections. Public libraries and Internet cafes around the world assure free or cheap access to those still without home computers. If this isn’t progress, if this isn’t empowerment, what is?

Yet there is a catch. In 1976, the same year that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs released the Apple I, which brought computing in to the home and the classroom, the economist Fred Hirsch published Social Limits to Growth. Most critics of the affluent society had seized on the persistence of poverty or pointed out the environmental price of mass consumption. And these may be more important issues than ever. But Hirsch also saw a flaw in conventional views of progress that would not be remedied even by some miraculous new energy source, guaranteed incomes, or the leveling up of all education to the standards of the best schools.

Grossly oversimplified, Hirsch’s argument was that as societies become wealthier, many consumer goals remain in short supply. There is a restricted supply of what is considered prime real estate; only so many people can own an apartment facing on New York’s Central Park or on Chicago’s lake shore without plunging entire landscapes in the shadows of their buildings. The prices of many rare books have increased over a hundredfold in the expansion since World War II, and a few major paintings are starting to break the nine-digit mark. And the growth of an educated work force, combined with frequent mergers and acquisitions, mean that there are more talented people than ever shut out of top management – which receives an ever-higher multiple of average wages and salaries. Even access to highway express lanes seems about to go to the highest bidders. All of these advantages are positional goods, and progress looks like a frustration machine to many citizens. Surveys taken in the 30 years since the Apple I and Hirsch’s book suggest that happiness has not grown with increased wealth or electronic access. (In fact, apart from a brief period in the 1990s, real wages have stagnated since the 1970s, in other words during the technological revolution of personal computing and the Web.)

Nearly every week a manifesto appears from some technological guru explaining how in the future we will all be empowered, and equal, freed from the constraints of established media and their haughty gatekeepers. Most of these prophecies have something in common. They are issued in a format of paper books bound in cloth-covered boards and promoted with dust jackets, or in national magazines whose formats have not changed significantly in fifty years or more except for an efflorescence of four-color printing made possible by computer-generated separations. Having a well-known conventional publisher is a positional good, guaranteeing the best of both worlds, physical presence in stores and libraries and electronic editions for the minority who prefer them. This will be true even with the advent of high-contrast readers called electronic paper, a miracle that seems always to be only five years away.

As a former acquisition editor I can testify that impatient critics of the printed book are getting things backward. Yes, conventional print publishing is a daunting business. A printed book, one of my own production editors pointed out to me, is really a machine with a half-million parts, any one of which can go wrong. While purely electronic publishing has the same challenges with texts themselves, print introduces new realms for errors and disputes in paper, printing, and binding. Conscientious editors of major illustrated books have been known to camp out at the printer, sometimes continents away, to see final proofs and avoid potentially ruinous last-minute surprises. Predicting sales is an occult art, with its dual risks of unmet surges in demand and massive write-offs and remainders. U.S. tax treatment of warehoused unsold copies is notoriously unsympathetic.

Yet these bugs are also features. If a well-known press takes the risk on a book, even a despised so-called midlist title, readers are at least subliminally aware that an investment of tens of thousands of dollars is at stake, that this author’s writing is worth a gamble. An honestly and openly self-published book of merit carries the same message. The Yale political scientist and statistician Edward Tufte has beaten conventional publishers at their own game with his best-selling series on graphic presentation of information, not by slashing costs, but by assuming risks in holding to the highest traditional production standards to market his work to a largely high-technology readership. While some industry pundits have proclaimed print-on-demand to be the future of publishing, there will always be a positional advantage to the conventional book. It says somebody thought enough of this writing to run off a whole batch – and there are many design features that on-demand printing can’t equal.

(Because progress has made communication so efficient, the prestige of inconvenience extends to personal life, too. That’s why electronic greeting cards, while still readily available, have never replaced those in the drugstore racks. The recipient appreciates not just the physical card suitable for display, and graphic frills like metallic foil, but the fact that somebody has gone to the effort of buying, addressing, stamping, and posting it. And while executives may spend hours e-mailing and instant messaging, their most important sentiments are likely to be expressed as handwritten notes, one of the reasons for the expansion of the luxury fountain pen industry in the digital age. Legislators and their staffs are also known to take handwritten letters much more seriously than e-mail.)

Despite all the predictions of the end of paper and of printed books dating from the rise of the PC and the Macintosh in the early 1980s, more and more people have declared themselves as writers to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the U.S., titles published grew from44,771 in 1991 to 61,700 in 1997 (the last year before new policies for counting titles were adopted), the formative years of the Web. According to a report by Statistics Canada, the number of Canadian titles published grew from 9,152 to 10,497 in roughly the same period. Word processing also empowered writers. U.S. census figures show the number of “authors” more than doubling the in 1980s, the largest growth in an arts work force. Surely the efficiency of word processing, which came of age in the decade — and in some ways reached a high point of usability for professional writers — had a lot to do with this burst. Yet time spent reading books in the United States has been declining slightly, and newspaper readership significantly.

All these trends would be minor concerns if the Web were creating corresponding new opportunities for writers. In fact, a few online outlets like Slate and some business magazine sites do pay competitively. As a researcher I’m delighted that there’s so much free, or usually advertising-supported content. But as a writer I’m concerned that outlets are declining as aspirations are rising. Writing programs seem to specialize in the one genre, the short story, that has suffered most from the decline of general-interest magazines. Meanwhile there are very few bloggers who have made a living from their writing, and many of these seem to have begun with experience or connections in print publishing. Why, then, do conventional media pay so much attention to the blogs and social networking sites that ostensibly threaten to make them obsolete? One reason may be that aspiring talent has been a cheap alternative ever since the “amateur nights” of vaudeville.

Would-be celebrities among bloggers, like print writers, face a positional problem. The great limit to progress is time. Increased wealth, along with a shift from production to marketing in the West, has multiplied pleas for attention. Advertising has become ever more intrusive in over the last fifty years, partly out of desperation. And more and more individuals with ideas, from teenage bloggers and members to billionaires, are in the race. Even doubling or trebling human longevity to allow more time for reading would not solve this dilemma; bestselling writers would also be living longer and adding to their output.

The reality is that even apparently stunning popularity of music on the Web does not necessarily translate into a “positional” advantage like a contract with a record label, or even into substantial concert revenue. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled a band, The Scene Aesthetic, which has had 2.3 million visitors to its website, and 1.3 million listeners on a third-party music website. Its concerts still draw only 200 people or so and net $600, which must be shared with other bands on the same bill.

While the Web is often disappointing to such newcomers, it is simultaneously helping undermine some of the most socially valuable parts of conventional media. By eroding the advertising base of print newspapers and magazines, the Web is not threatening their existence, but it is eroding vital and always marginally profitable services. Even as the number of published books has soared, newspaper book review sections have dwindled. And at a recent conference of Nieman Fellows at Harvard, Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe, a Pulitzer Prize winner, warned of the future of the investigative reporting that had exposed so many government abuses in recent decades: “The only place we see it is in the print media and I don't know if we'll see it five or 10 years down the road,” the observed, “and that scares the hell out of me.” Even the New York Times is about to shrink its news content, if only slightly. U.S. television networks, too, have been closing their foreign bureaus.

To sum up, the Web will never destroy older media because their technical difficulties and risks help create prestige and interest. The Web may even be of limited value in bringing unknown writers and musicians to the attention of major publishers and record labels. Yet it does nibble at their base, creating new challenges for writers, musicians, and media. Far from a new egalitarianism, the Web might be promoting a pseudo-democracy harking back to the class society of Victorian England, when W.S. Gilbert’s Grand Inquisitor lampooned popular aspirations in The Gondoliers: “When everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody.”

If this is the trend, what can we do to reverse it? A good start is to strengthen middle-range institutions between media conglomerates and isolated bloggers: independent book and magazine publishers, film producers, record labels, and websites. The National Film Board of Canada is an inspiring example for arts policy everywhere. Above all, we need to damp the rhetoric of technology, to stop proclaiming (or lamenting) the impending destruction of this or that, and to start improving the way in which old and new media work together.

Copyright © Edward Tenner
All rights reserved.