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Publishing's Paperless Prospects

With the digital revolution finally engulfing society and the act of communication, it is inevitable that the technology-driven human quest for sensory stimulation via computer networks will encourage the digitization of a variety of intellectual artifacts. With paintings, software applications, literary works, motion-picture media, games and 3D designs undergoing the conversion from tangible form to ethereal bits, a number of issues arise that may alter the psychology of art and intellectualism irreversibly.

The most observable difference between print and electronic publishing is their temporal qualities. While print-based media are grounded in physical space, their form consisting of solid elements based on wood pulp and plastics that can be 'owned', the electronic media free publishing from the printing and object-based process. Digital media consist of a series of binary bits that fly through space at the speed of light, foregoing a complex computer-driven data encoding/decoding process at each end. While the decoded product, to the senses, may resemble a printed alternative in many ways, it is not materially or spatially-bound, and therefore challenges national regulations and established notions of intellectual 'property'.

Through electronic publishing's improved capacity for user-definition, real-time reporting, interactivity and an absence of restrictive gatekeeping procedures, the media transcend the permanence that binds print publishing. Much like the evolution of the human species as posed by Plato in The Last Days of Socrates from one of temporality and physicality to a species focused primarily on purity of thought and spirit, the electronic evolution of publishing overcomes the limitations of space and time by casting off the restrictions of physicality. Information becomes not book, not video, but pure thought - ideas circulating in the incorporeal sphere of conception. As Jean Perry Barlow suggests in Selling wine without bottles: The economy of mind on the global Net, information becomes a verb, not a noun. It becomes a metamorphosis of ideas founded in the collaborative thoughts of both author and reader/participant.

The author-reader relationship in the electronic orb of computer networking takes on a completely different meaning to that existing in traditional print media. The digital media enable real-time dynamic updating and instant user feedback, the results of which can, in turn, contribute to shaping the product. This infers that the new system is largely relationship-based, with user-friendly indexing features, personalizability and communal features fostering the product towards achieving its maximum potential, while reflecting a variety of viewpoints. The process of print publishing restricts such rapid feedback and updated information delivery. Restrictive expenses of resources, too, act as a barrier against the production of printed revised editions until sufficient demand arises.

Perhaps one of the most telling signs of the improvements that electronic publishing holds over print publishing is the former's capacity for multimedia. While printed goods can mix only static code systems, electronic publishing, whether it be in the form of CD-ROMs or Web pages, for example, have a greater information capacity - and the ability to combine video, audio and real-time interactive features in a non-linear design that is readily searchable.

Socially and politically, though, the greatest difference between the disparate publishing processes is in relation to the accessibility of electronic media as a publishing outlet. User-friendly HTML editors and multimedia presentation software, in conjunction with the low costs associated with distributing information over networks effectively opens up the market to anyone who is driven to make a statement or provide information to the public, whether pertinent or otherwise. Of course, this aspect also raises questions regarding the validity of information conveyed, though similar accusations could arguably be directed at many fringe print productions. Undeniably, though, the infinite benefits underlying a user-shaped environment far outweigh issues of academic legitimacy and the formation of a deceptive hyper-reality.

This egalitarian, democratic approach contrasts with the high barriers to entry faced by print publishers. No longer does the process require teams of proficient graphic artists and editors, or expensive printing and distribution expenses; not to mention the felling of hundreds of trees. The elitist, regulated, institutionalised approach to publishing is being undermined by the equally significant outpouring of raw inspiration and creativity that exists in this new unbridled frontier.

Written by Joshua Smith. © 1998

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