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PAULINA STREET JOURNAL
Digital psychosis

March 11, 2010

I was browsing the other day through the New York Review of Books — the rabble may prefer the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, but for me nothing beats a saucy disquisition on eighteenth-century Venetian art — when I came upon the following arresting passage in an essay entitled "Publishing: The Revolutionary Future" by Jason Epstein, a revered figure in the book business:

The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic … technological shift [is] orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg's German city of Mainz six centuries ago.

Though Gutenberg's invention made possible our modern world with all its wonders and woes, no one, much less Gutenberg himself, could have foreseen that his press would have this effect. And no one today can foresee except in broad and sketchy outline the far greater impact that digitization will have on our own future.

No disrespect to Jason Epstein, but this is a prime example of what I call digital psychosis: the propensity of smart — nay, brilliant — people to believe things about technology that are completely nuts.

You're not seeing it? Let's examine the cited passage. Few would quarrel with the claim that Gutenberg's invention more than any other pulled us out of the swamps. (Some will argue for the wheel, admittedly a useful gadget, but come now. Five thousand years after the invention of the wheel we were still hauling manure in oxcarts. Fifty years after the invention of movable type Europeans had begun to depopulate the New World.)

Epstein now asserts that the coming revolution will be orders of magnitude greater. An order of magnitude is commonly understood to mean a power of ten, and the plural suggests a minimum of two. From this we deduce that the looming tsunami will be, at minimum, a hundred times more powerful than any previous upheaval. Epstein, in other words, believes digitization — publishing books electronically rather than on paper — will have a greater effect on civilization than anything short of an asteroid strike.

Seems to me there are two possible reactions to this prediction:

  1. Yipes.

  2. Get a grip.

Come now, you say. The man is engaging in a bit of harmless hype. He's merely saying digitization will affect the diffusion of knowledge even more profoundly than the invention of moveable type. Isn't that obvious?

No, it's not. All that's obvious is that people think it's obvious. This is a manifestation of digital psychosis.

I'll return to book publishing later, but examples of digital psychosis are to be seen everywhere. For example, in a recent interview, Web pioneer Marc Andreesen, founder of Netscape, urged traditional media companies to "shut down their print editions and embrace the Web wholeheartedly," since the future is self-evidently online. This idea is daft. Ninety percent of newspaper ad revenue comes from print, less than 10 percent from online. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker — and mind you, the man's in television — has spoken of trading analog dollars for digital dimes. Newspapers in general remain a profitable business; even bankrupt outfits like Tribune Company are operating in the black. Who would seriously suggest heaving tens of billions of dollars over the side in the faint hope of recovering a fraction of it online? Only someone suffering from digital psychosis.

Another example: while noshing with friends recently I observed that U.S. national debt would soon exceed the gross domestic product, the first time this had happened since World War II. (I ask you, am I the life of the party or what?) Working the war debt down to a manageable level had taken 20 years, and I ventured the thought that doing so now would be even tougher, since the U.S. was less dominant economically than it had been in the postwar era.

To my surprise, this anodyne comment was vehemently disputed by a member of the group, who argued that vast U.S. wealth would materialize from technologies yet undreamt of, and this would wash away the debt. I responded mildly that while I hoped this was the case, the fact that we were now competing for scarce resources with countries like China made our prospects uncertain. Honestly, does that sound to you like a radical notion? But my friend was adamant that we had naught to fear — ingenuity would solve all. I backed off. One recognized the signs. Digital psychosis.

Even those who know they've succumbed to the delirium can't help themselves. Last month Newsweek columnist Daniel Lyons announced his disappointment with the Apple iPad, plaintively asking, "Why do we invest so much hope in new technology?" He was speaking of a company whose previous new product, the iPhone, is widely held to have revolutionized the cell phone — why, even I have one, which I used to level a picture in my daughter's dorm room. How wacky is that? It seems reasonable to me on the basis of the iPhone to expect that the iPad will also be a remarkable product. Lyons, on the other hand, concedes that while the device had its points, it isn't "magical" — on the order, one supposes, of Harry Potter's wand. He fully recognizes that this is loony thinking, yet he thinks it. Another sad case of digital psychosis.

You may be saying to yourself: this guy's a primitive. I acknowledge this is true. I've been online since Compuserve days, but still think of computers as improved typewriters and the Internet as a telephone party line with pictures. Nonetheless, I accept the general proposition that technology will change things — just maybe not as much as some people think.

Let's return to books. I don't quarrel with the argument that digitization will upend the publishing industry. No doubt some books will always be printed, lest we have nothing to put on our coffee tables but coffee. But your basic text-only tome — no question, it's cheaper to buy a digital version, and we have the grudging admission of Nicholson Baker that you can lose yourself in an electronic book (he had a Kindle) just as you can in the paper kind. Amazon says it sells more Kindle books now than paper ones. We may safely predict many books hereafter will be published only in digital form, and that titles produced by small firms or authors themselves will proliferate. Some of these books will become monster bestsellers based solely on word-of-mouth, or word-of-blog; the power of big corporate publishers in consequence will diminish. Amazon et al will make a zillion bucks.

So yes, things will be different, but in the grand scheme, not so much. The notion that digital books will transform civilization — excuse me, this is crazy talk. Digital books arguably are an improvement over the current method of book distribution, but they're not going to revolutionize anything except in the sense of putting bookstores out of business. They're not going to bring enlightenment to backward corners of the planet; on the contrary, they require complicated, expensive technology available only to the affluent. A paper book found in an attic retains its power to conjure another world; if you stumble on a Kindle with its battery discharged, you've got an inert plastic box.

One wants to give the thing its due. Will digital technology create new possibilities, giving rise, for example, to new art forms melding text, sound, video and smell? I wouldn't be surprised. Will it have consequences no one now foresees? Assuredly this is true also. However, if these thoughts inspire visions of Jesus, you need to get out of the house till the hallucination passes. Digital psychosis has got you in its grip.

 — Ed Zotti

Previous Paulina Street Journal Columns  

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Working for Barack

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