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Technological Hammers

has become obvious that the machine is here to stay.... The sensible thing to do is not to revolt against the inevitable, but to use and modify it, to make it serve your purposes. Machines exist; let us then exploit them to create beauty--a modern beauty, while we are about it. For we live in the twentieth century; let us frankly admit it and not pretend that we live in the fifteenth.

Aldous Huxley, ``Printing of To-Day,'' in [36]

Armed only with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To technologists, every problem has a technological solution, particularly since technolust can blind them to potential problems. But industry has to look at more issues. Just because a new technology is technically superior to an older technology does not mean that it will win; it can lose for social reasons that have nothing to do with technology [9,10].

For example, digital audio tape has not yet replaced analog tape in the U.S. thanks to strenuous obstruction from the Recording Industry Association of America. Although automated teller machines were a success for Citibank, Chemical Bank lost tens of millions on their experimental home banking system [22]. Videocassette recorders (VCRs) succeeded over analog videodisc players because videocassettes were rewriteable and the videodisc industry paid no attention to the renting market. Fax machines are more prevalent than electronic mail in the business community because they require no special protocols and business people are more familiar with paper. Fax machines succeeded but the picturephone, first introduced in 1971, has yet to take off [34]. On the other hand, fax machines were first developed 30 years ago and only succeeded when they agreed on international standards. And most telling of all for this report, after 15 years most videotext systems have yet to take off [43].

On the other hand, matches replaced flint, cars replaced horses, telegraphs replaced the pony express, transistors replaced vacuum tubes, digital optical discs replaced analog phonograph discs, fiberoptic cable is replacing copper cable, and cable television is replacing airwave television. Such examples can be multiplied indefinitely, for they are the records of our civilization.

Superior technology beats inferior technology if it can be adopted without too much initial social change. And even that inertial barrier can be overcome if the technology is so important that it must be adopted or the society dies--as happened with radar and all other warfare-originated technologies, or is so superior that it must be adopted or the industry dies--as happened with steamships.

For the technologist, a world of 5.5 billion that is growing by 96 million people a year--12 Chicagos, 8 Cairos, or 4 Canadas--needs all the technological help it can get. Particularly in the strongest and richest nation in the world; a nation that ranks 23rd in infant mortality, a nation that graduates more lawyers than engineers, a nation where 1 in 5 children are born illegitimate, a nation where 1 in 4 children are below the poverty line, a nation whose children rank behind those of most developed nations in general knowledge, math, and science, and a nation where, as of November 1st 1991, 8.6 million people are unemployed. The technologist's job is to tell the rest of society about possibilities they may be unaware of. The technologist's problem is to estimate the rest of society's reaction to a new product.

An examination of why some technologies languish while others explode and an exploration of potential relations between each such reason and the publishing industry's mission would turn this report into a book. For example, businesses saw fax machines as superior to electronic terminals. Initially they cost the same, but training time was shorter since they used a phone with no special protocols and faxes could carry arbitrary images, including pictures and handwriting.

However, once received a fax must be processed in the old way, while electronic documents can be stored, searched, cross-referenced, indexed, linked, and retrieved by machines. Further, it is more convenient to send long documents electronically, they can be reformatted for a new display, they do not bounce if the target phone is busy, and they can contain working programs and animated illustrations. And of course they can always be printed.

It is to the discredit of the computer industry that the opportunity and need for fax machines existed. Fax machines would have been unnecessary were it not for endless squabbling over interface standards and an unthinking allegiance to arcane interfaces and protocols. The widespread inability to program simple VCRs shows that this attitude is not confined to computer scientists.

Instead of exploring the social issues further, this report has presented, in decreasing order of confidence: the technology likely to affect publishing over the next decade; reasons why that technology will become widely used; a way for publishers to exploit the technology (albeit, a way that is biased toward the interests of educators, scientists, and technologists); and a case that if some publisher adopts that strategy then other publishers will lose revenue. Publishers must determine how much faith they should place in each step of the extrapolation. Their decisions may determine who will be succeeding and who will be succumbing 10 years hence.

next up previous contents
Next: My Thanks Up: The New Publishing Technology's Previous: Entrepreneurs
Gregory J. E. Rawlins