We each received word yesterday
that the publishers of Encyclopaedia
Britannica would stop producing hardbound, paper copies of their venerable
reference. Actually, they stopped in
2010 but didn’t tell anyone. Now they’ve
disclosed they’ve been able to sell just 8,000 copies of the collection. The rest are in a warehouse in Chicago,
looking for someone who needs historically accurate, out-of-date information.
According to the company,
they’ll continue publishing online and will sell their services to individuals,
schools and libraries. In some respects,
that’s good. The Web is much more easily
updated, more interactive, and can deliver motion, sound, and color
simultaneously. In other respects,
that’s not good, particularly for young readers, older folks, immigrants, and
technophobes who’d rather read a book.
Britannica’s decision is, in so
many ways, simply a mile marker along the way to the new world of the 21st
century. In mid-20th century America, a
set of Britannicas on the shelf was a status symbol: a sign that the family had
money, taste, some pretense to intellect, or at least a very strong desire to
be seen that way. Other families had the
World Book, Colliers, or the Encyclopedia Americana (my own family’s
choice). Annual yearbooks updated
entries in science, technology, industrial manufacturing, botany, and
more. And, for so many of us who grew up
in the 20th century, it was fun just to look through those volumes,
read, and wonder about the world.
Wikipedia has largely replaced
those printed volumes, principally because it’s free. Everything on the Web is free (or should be,
according to it most passionate users).
The fact that it’s not written, edited, or monitored by content matter
experts seems to be of little concern.
Crowd-sourcing has replaced experts and, though not good, the accuracy
quotient of Wikipedia articles seems to be improving.
This is, however, part of a
trend that assumes expertise is overvalued.
Today, most technology users value connectivity and experience. Newspapers and magazines are in decline,
bloggers and content aggregators are on the ascendant. The problem with crowd sourcing the answer to
any particular question is, of course, that you’re as likely to find
ideologically driven opinion as hard fact.
You also have little in the way of support for judgements about
credibility, reliability, and accuracy.
Ours is a society that cannot
afford to do without a postal service, daily newspapers, and expertly edited
sources of public knowledge. The notion
that all knowledge is available online within six clicks is both exciting and a
bit frightening (have you Googled yourself, your friends, or your children to
see what’s online, including images?).
The disappearance of our printed
sources of information poses two serious concerns. First, our antiquated, overtaxed, patchwork
power grid is perennially on the verge of collapse. Chinese hackers, aging components, or an F4
tornado could take down large segments of our power supply. No power, no Internet.
Second, just two-thirds of all
Americans have access to the Internet at work or home. Those of us who live with an iPhone,
Blackberry, tablet device (or a desktop computer) seem to think just about
everyone is connected. Not so. That’s an income and class-driven phenomenon
that’s unlikely to resolve itself soon.
Wireless handheld devices and municipal WiFi systems look promising, but
more than 100 million Americans today have no way to connect to the Internet,
according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
Where does all of this leave
us? Well, clearly this is a hinge point
in history, much like Gutenberg’s use of moveable type to operate a printing
press, or Marconi’s use of wireless communication to transmit the human voice
over vast distances. The arrival of
video scanning and high-speed data processing have accelerated the rate of
change and we’re simply going to have to live with it and make the best of it.
In the interim, we could think
about buying a book or subscribing to a newspaper (just for old time’s sake),
or we could do something important for that one-third of our neighbors and
countrymen that will serve as an information safety net: support your local
public library. They, too, offer access
to the Internet, but they also offer a clean, safe, nicely organized source for
each of us to find information that’s useful, valuable, interesting, and
Looking forward to the world our
children and their children will live in doesn’t mean simply abandoning
technology that seems anachronistic. It
means preserving the best of what we know and making it accessible to everyone.
James S. O’Rourke, IV is a Teaching
Professor of Management and Arthur F. and Mary J. O’Neil Director of the
Fanning Center for Business Communication at the University of Notre Dame.