An article by Rebecca Piirto Heath in the March 1997 issue of the American Demographics revealed the lattest Gallup poll on reading habits, done in 1991. It reports that 24% of Americans had completed a book in the last week, down from 30% in 1975; and the proportion of Americans who completed no books at all during the past year doubled from 8% in 1978 to 16% in 1990. Book readership seems to be on the decline. What constituted to this effect? Despite the fact that 62% of adults read a daily newspaper, newspaper companies are available through the Internet. Its searchability and customizability has attracted many people to explore online for fun and for business. Will the book as a material object still maintain some of its symbolic value, or it will disappear into the realm of merely virtual entities? How will that affect researchers in a wide range of fields: philosophers, linguistics, semioticians, histroians,psychologists, experts in new technologies - not to mention authors, librarians, publishers, and others with a professional interest in the production and dissemination of the conventional book?
HOW DO THEORISTS EXPLAIN THE EXTINCTION OF BOOKS BY TECHNOLOGY?
Duguid introduced two arguments put forward by futurologists to explain the ultimate extinction of books by technology --- 1. the theory of supersession, and 2.the liberation technology --- and he found both ideas problematic. The theory of supersession puts that new technological type would takeover or replace its predecessors, and it seeks complete distachment from the past. Duguid referred to Walter Jackson Bate's study (1) of the relation between technological innovation and their claim of supersession. Bates suggested that whenever techniques of cultural preservation (the development of printing, libraries, and museums, for example) improve, the perceived increase in the cultural burden prompts a new generation to try to find ways to throw off the old. (p.69)
The liberation technology holds that new technology is going to give freedom to information. Duguid introduced Bolter's (2)revolutionary goal of freeing the writing from the frozen structure of the page and ultimately liberating the text. (p.73) Dubuid argued that the so-called liberation-technology discounts the substantial role the book plays in coordinating consumption and production. He reasoned that book production (publication) is an act of socialization(as quoted from McGann) rather than an act of incarcereation.(p.80)
Despite their seemingly united support of new technologies, Duguid saw contradiction between these two phenomena: The idea of supersession bears a postmodernist tone of breaking the old by new technology, while liberationists seek the ultimate freedom of information. These two idea together breeds into a paradoxical notion of the desire for a technology to liberate information from technology. Duguid criticized it as being not very much different from the idea of searching for a weapon to end all weapons or war to end all wars. It bears the idea that the latest weapon is an agent of peace, and the latest revolution will be the last.
IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE TASTE OF THE READER
An article written by John Barth, a novelist, in the spring issue of Wilson Quarterly, and appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 3, 1996) titiled The Virtual Virtuality of Literary Texts, compares Electronic Fiction with ordinary printed version of fiction. Barth acknowledges that interative computer fiction (especially with whole repertories of graphic, cinematic, and auditory effects) is very fascinating and attractive to audience. However, the appeal offered by E-fiction differs from the Straight p-fiction in their virtual reality. The former offers sights, sounds, and feels that are literal physical sensations generated by artificial stimuli. The latter, on the other hand, deals in a purely virtual virtuality of literary text. The printed page (except those with illustrations) is strictly anesthetic, it has no literal sights or sounds or feels or tastes or smells, but its appeal actually originates from the readers pure hyperspace of their imagination. Other people still see hope for the future of the print media. As indicated earlier in this article, Americans seem to be reading less. Heath suggests that the biggest hindrance to reading may be the shortage of time because books require long periods of intense concentration and most Americans lack the patience now; another reason has to be the wider choice of information available nowadays than 10 or 20 years ago --- different types of magazines (catering different age groups, gender, occupation, interests, etc), newspapers, the Internet, on-line services, CD-ROM multimedia products, audio tapes, video, TV, and radio --- all competing to provide information, entertainment, and stories. So the issue here is the limit of time than anything else.
THE DESIRE FOR BOOKS IS STILL THERE
Despite the fact that people aren't reading as many books as they used to (see Appendix A for Who Reads Now?), they continue to have an endless desire for information. Heath uses the example of the invention of the moveable-type printing press in 1455 by Gutenberg. Initially, there were some fear that such an invention would mean the end of handwritten text. However, since reading material to the masses became less expensive, it turned out that more people learned to read and write, which led to a boost to the caligraphic arts in 16th century. In her opinion, on-line and CD-ROM have not destroyed booksale. Accordiing to a study by The NPD Group, Inc, and Carol Meyer for the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, and the Book Industry Study Group, totoal adult book purchases in the U.S. rose from 776 million in 1991 to 1 billion in 1995. A survey done at University of Michigan Business School finds that books are the number-two-selling commodity on the Internet after computer software (see graph 2). As a result of the technological innovation, there has been a change in the type of books purchased. The sales of computer-related books grew from 1.1 percent of the total book market (9 million) in 1991 to 2.2 percent (22 million) in 1995. It proves a fairly subtle situation that people still go back to the printed books as their primary source of information, even for computer-related books, which have been considered by some people as the 'killer'of printed books.
WILL COMPUTER ALONE BEAT THE 'GAME'?
As Jay David Bolter suggested in his article, Ekphrasis, Virtual Reality, And The Future Of Writing, speculation about the future of books in nothing new. People used to think that print technology would entirely replace handwriting for the distribution of most kind of texts, but it did not make handwriting obsolete. Others hoped that print technology could liberate human communities, which is similar to those computer enthusiasts nowadays who see that hypertext or virtual reality as liberating. Bolter also caution us that it is important to look at both technological change as well as the change in cultual needs to predict the future of the book. Undoubtedly, many social scientists, academic researchers and businesses already turn to the computer screen for information gathering, communications, accounting, record-keeping, and so on. If our culture is going toward this direction, the position of the printed book as a major means of communications may be replaced by computers in terms of flexibility, interactivity, and speed of distribution. However, books and journals may take on another role in lives as for instance, ideal locations for individuals prestigious texts. Hence, even though electronic media could replace some aspects of printing technology, there is still some aspects that the former could not take away from tne latter.
THE SECRET OF BOOKS/PRINTED MEDIA LONGEVITY?
PAUL DUGUID quoted the example of the pencil. He cited an example in Petrosy's The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1990) that in 1938, the New York Times predicted that the heavily engineered typewriter would replace simple pencil. However, pencils still survive long after the development of alternatives due to its social resourcefulness. It is a crucial phenomenon for the resilience of reading and writing. Take the example of a mail-order company in Leavenger of Del Ray Beach, Florida which offers tools for serious readers. It offers high-quality reading and writing tools such as fountain pens, reading carrels, barrister's bag made from wood, leather, brass, and velvet. Their customers include not only doctors and attorneys, but teachers, librarians, and students. Its marketing manager Susan DeVito says that the more important connections is psychographics, "People appreciate quality. Writing with a fine pen or being surrounded by fine things makes them feel better about their work. Of course, we still find pencils and pens indispensable in the most high-tech companies, the most high-class hotels and the most expensive restaurants. People choose to write cards or letter to intimate friends in ink due to its elegant presentation which posts special meaning to the receivers. An e-mail is an ineffective means for expressing gratitude or sincerity.
Another perspective by Duguid is the fusion of the two separate aspects contained in the supersession theory --- technological and the book. Guguid introduced the idea of the book as a machine to think with."(p.78) He puts that all information technologies and the information they carry are interdependent. That is, if the books and the information they carry are interdependent, then as a machine, the book is clearly more than a form of ideas produced elsewhere. It is itself a means of production. Duguid considers books being part of a social system that includes authors, readers, publishers, bookseller4s, libraries, and so on. Therefore, books are not 'dead things' carrying information from authors to readers. They are crucial agents in the cycle of production, distribution, and consumption.
Arugments against the book often characterize it not in terms of the whole cycle (from writer to buyer and back to writer again) but from the point of view of authorial production alone. On the contrary, information technology is often characterized in terms of circulating text or of cultural consumption, but not production. Privileged by the circulating text makes information seem remarkably self-sufficient, and the book, imprisoning.
In fact, there is still market for books. Not surprisingly, the typical heavy reader of books (defined as someone who buys 20 or more paperback books a year) is most likely to be someone with more money, education, and perhaps time. According to Len Vlahos of the ABA mentioned in Heath's article, people who are over 55, along with the 40-t0-44 group, are the strongest market for books. It is because people in that age group tend to have more leisure time and the most disposable income to spend on books and reading.
TRADITIONAL NEWS MEDIA GOES ON-LINE:
Based on the statistics done by Morgan Stanley Research, it shows that from the year 1994-1996, sales and earnings of different newspapers are still in pretty good shape. The American Demographics (March 1997) has the following findings:
Another research done in Shirley Biagl's Media/Impact that 62% of all adults read a daily newspaper; 75% of all adults read a newspaper at least once per week.
Historically, newspaper reading has tended to be lowest among teenagers and people in their early 20s. Based on a study by FINS/SVP of New York City, this group of young generation has more discretionary time and a greater tendency to socialize online. In early 1996, there were already 700 newspapers offered contents through the web.
Many traditional news media has already gone on-line. For example, The San Jose Mercury News (Knight Ridder), the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times; trade magazines from Ziff-Davis (PC Week; PC Magazine) and CMP Publications (Communications Week and Computer Shopper); other magazines like HotWired and Time; news feeds from PR Newsire and Reuters; audio broadcasts from c|net, ABC, and National Public Radio; and video broadcasts like NBC Pro. There are literally hundreds of traditional news media sources available on the Internet. The Internet Report America Online currently has about 5 million subscribers, up from 1 million a year ago. Since consumers with direct Web accesss is still on a rapid growth, the authors estimated that within a year, the number of subscribers could rise up to about 10 million. The increase is understandable. As Howorth of the American Booksellers' Association says that since younger people learn computers as part of their school cirriculum, "... using computers and the Internet is just a matter of course. " Could this mean the end of newspaper?
To explore this question, it is essential to look at some statistics on how good or how bad different newsapaper circulation has been doing in recent years. (Look at appendix A) It is true that people are still interested in reading, but they have become more selective. They want to read things that cater to their own needs and interests. Online database services like the PowerCast target those individuals. This online news is being updated every 15 minutes, so as to make sure that the user would get the lattest version of what's-going-on; the status of the stock-exchange enables stock-holders to make the best decision at the best time.
As indicated in the table, the Web site has already attracted many advertising dollar, and is still on the rise. However, sometime it is the habit that counts: 1. The user has to stay on line in order to obtain the updated news. Would there be that many people (except for business purposes) stay in a place and wait to be showered with information every 15 minutes? 2. People usually read news on one setting --- in the morning when having breakfast, during tea-breaks or lunch-breaks, or when riding on a public transit. But even if they do not want to buy a newspaper to read, those people always have the freedom to choose other means of obtaining news like TV or radio, instead of via the Internet. 3, Newspapers still exist despite various competition from network TV and radio. There is got to be something unique about newspaper reading that keeps its reader going.
1. The utility and significance of the form of the book doesn't begin and end with the printed page. It participates in the operation of the social cycle of production, consumption, and distribution.
2. In the realm of social-material complex used by Raymond Williams (1974), technologies are only a part of it. We should not underestimate the social resoursefulness of the past, because they offer their own deep-rooted and resilient combination of technology and social process and continue to provide unrivaled signifying matter. (p.64)
3. We should not look at technology in isolation but within its social-material and historical context.
4. The paradoxical prediction that freedom (of information) from technology can be achieved through technology.
5. Books and newspapers still survive due to a)social resourcefulness; b)essential for the creation of a social cycle of production; c)it still has a market for older people who have much time and money
There is no doubts that digital technologies will have profound effects on the way our discourse is conducted and promise to lead to the emergence of a new regime of discourse, or to use Regis Debray's term, "mediasphere". As Geoggrey Nunberg reminds us, it is important that we do not lose sight of the point that since technology itself is changing rapidly and unpredictably, even those who tend to think of it deterministically should still be quite doubtful about trying to preict what form it will wind up taking or what its cultural consequences are likely to be.