It's 6 PM and a faceless modemer dials into an Internet provider. Using File Transfer Protocol, he logs onto a UNIX server in Indiana. He types in a few arcane commands, and within a half hour he possess the complete score for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Pi to a million digits, various works of classic fiction, political papers, census results, the CIA World Factbook, the King James Bible, and some books about the Internet.
No, this isn't some "hacker" snubbing his nose at copyright law - this is the world of electronic publishing. Where a modemer can log onto a commercial online service and point and click his way through all sorts of periodicals - TIME, Business Week, PC World, Investor's Business Daily, Compute, The New Republic, even The New York Times. Where a CD-ROM contains thirty minutes of video and articles about current events. Where trees and money are being conserved. Electronic publishing is a fast-growing field, and it's leaders are predicting the extinction of the paper document.
Although the marriage of electronics with publishing is not a recent development, it had previously been mutually beneficial. Computers were used to desktop publish newsletters and magazines, but in the end they arrived on paper. Computers were used to search lists of paper documents, but eventually a physical document arrived in the searcher's hands. No one wanted to read things on computers. Besides the low-quality monitors, people wanted to be able to read on planes, in hotels, in waiting rooms, on trains - and at the time there did not exist inexpensive portable computers.
But the fully electronic document is coming in to its own, thanks to the many benefits it provides. The cost is a magnitude lower than paper, while the speed is much higher. Michael Hart is the executive director of Project Gutenberg, which I will discuss later. In an electronic mail dialogue, he cited the example of Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland. Not taking in to account the cost of a computer (as little as $1000) since most people have them anyway, a copy of the book on floppy might cost a dollar. There is also no time spent publishing the document, once it's in etext (electronic text) form it can be gotten almost instantly. On the other hand the cheapest possible paper copy of the book would be $5 because of the cost of printing, and printing would also delay it's availability to the public. Electronic documents also have a better availability, since they can be reproduced infinitely and do not require leaving your house, thanks to low-cost modems. Furthermore, it is now possible to read Associated Press reports as they are released not in the next morning's paper, and you don't even have to pay the 25 cents. Cost, speed, and availability are just some of the compelling arguments for electronic publishing instead of paper.
Another advantage of electronic publishing is all the new possibilities it provides. Just about anybody can electronically publish anything [there is even a Internet newsgroup where people can publish their XXX rated stories]. Underground newsletters about music clubs and Generation X society are now even easier to distribute, since funds for paper is no longer required. There all sorts of amateur, weird, funny, or short documents and graphics [that could never have made it in the paper publishing world] that are now being electronically published. There are also documents with increased depth [such as extensions of magazine articles] that would never have been published because of space limitations. Karin L. Trgovac, director of communications for Project Gutenberg, sums it up by saying, "I think electronic publishing helps to level the field in terms of who can publish. Look at the range of people who have access."
Fortunately, the increased variety of the documents does nothing to impede searches for particular documents. Services like Gopher on the Internet can lead you in the right direction, and within a document, searching is a snap. Just type in what you want and before you could find the index in a paper document, you'll have found what you want.
Thanks to feedback and other features, electronic documents are an example of the encroachment of interactivity upon the passive activities we hold dear. People now can have ongoing dialogues with authors ranging from John Leo of U.S. News & World Report to John Grisham [If you're interested in this, check out the book Electronic Mail Addresses of the Rich and Famous]. Electronic documents also offer copying, quoting, indexes, modification, hypertext links and the like. "Physical media just can't compete . . . [electronic text] just offers more 'bang for the buck'," explains Hart.
We know all these advantages exist because Project Gutenberg, named for the developer of the famous press, at Illinois Benedictine College, has put electronic text in operation and has seen it's advantages and pitfalls. It's hundreds of available titles have no copyright, which enables free distribution, but certain rules apply to anyone using Project GutenbergTM etexts. The process is far from streamlined - a conservative estimate is that it takes 50 hours to get any etext selected, entered, proofread, edited, copyright searched and analyzed, etc. However, when one considers these etexts may reach as many as one million people by the year 2001, the value of their work is immense. You can contact Project Gutenberg at P.O. Box 2782, Champaign, IL, 61825 or via the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Project Gutenberg File Transfer Protocol can be reached by ftp.etext.org or mrcnext.cso.uiuc.edu.
There are also many companies attempting to capitalize on the multimedia possibilities of electronic publishing. Sound and pictures are being incorporated in low-cost Internet World Wide Web "publications", and companies like Medio and Nautilus are producing CD-ROM's that represent the new generation of periodicals - now music reviews include sound clips, movie reviews include trailers, book reviews include excerpts, and how-to articles include demonstrative videos. All this is put together with low costs, high speed, and many advantages.
But even more important than the niceties of electronic publishing is the benefits it can offer society. As Michael Hart wrote in a winter newsletter, "For the first time, we have the capability for everyone on an Universal scale, literally, to have information, education, and literacy at their fingertips, should they choose to be informed, educated, or literate....Perhaps the best use of the Internet is to fight this epidemic and to make the cures for illiteracy and ignorance available so cheaply that there can never again be any excuse for ignorance and illiteracy - - forever."