Sometimes I tell people that I’m haunted by the iPod. When it first came out, most of us looked at it and basically said “Oh, how fun; it’s a digital Walkman.” We figured it would do just what a Walkman did—give people an easy and private way to listen to their albums while they walked around—the difference being that it could hold multiple albums at once and the music would be loaded and saved digitally. And that was a perfectly reasonable assessment of the situation; there was no particular reason to expect that the iPod was, in fact, going to take us from an album-based music economy back into a song-based one and thereby massively disrupt the record industry (before giving birth to the iPhone and thereby revolutionizing both mobile computing and the marketplace for telephone services).
The iPod wasn’t the only disruptive influence on the music industry, of course (massive piracy played a significant role as well) but the enduring impact of iTunes has been to recreate the music industry in the image of 1960. And what’s scary about this, to me anyway, is not just that it was unpredicted, but that it was most likely unpredictable.
This is scary to me for two reasons: first, because I am currently in charge of a large research library. Second, because I’m still about 20 years away from retirement age. These facts fill me with a certain sense of urgency, because research libraries are not nimble. We were never intended to be nimble; we were intended to be monumental, solid, and immovable. This made very good sense for many centuries, during which the information we were charged with gathering and organizing was encoded in monumental, solid, and hard-to-move physical objects (which were simultaneously fragile and vulnerable to the elements and the predations of thieves). A lack of nimbleness implies the need for preparation, so that when threats or disruption appear, we’ll be positioned to deal with them. But preparation also requires prediction, and prediction is a sucker’s game.
In the January issue of the New Criterion, managing editor James Panero writes engagingly and insightfully about what he calls “the culture of the copy,” describing the dynamics of technological (as distinct from cultural and political) revolutions and teasing out some of the many deep implications for written culture of the technological changes brought on by the Internet.
For the most part, Panero casts the Internet version of “copying” (which is built on digital transmission) opposite the print-based copying that characterized the 1,600 years of the post-Gutenberg print era. I find it interesting, however, that he gives such short shrift to print-on-demand (POD)—a form of copying that stands with one foot firmly in our analog past and the other in our digital, networked present and future. The ability to make a desired book appear, physically, on demand, and essentially out of thin air within minutes of expressing that desire is breathtakingly new and has the potential to be deeply, deeply disruptive to virtually everything about the businesses of bookselling and librarianship. Scalable and widely-distributed POD capabilities would fully obviate the very concept of the print run, and would cast into serious question the function of most library collections. And those are only the clearly predictable consequences of such a development—unsettling as they are, it’s the wholly unpredictable ones that really keep me up at night, precisely because I don’t even know what to worry about.
How much should libraries and publishers worry about such disruption? A lot. The mechanism for these changes already exists, in the form of centralized, warehouse-based POD and—even more exciting and disturbing—local POD devices like the Espresso Book Machine (EBM), which can print and bind a 500-page book in roughly five minutes at a cost of about one cent per page.
If these exist already, why have they failed to disrupt the industry? In the former case—warehouse-based POD fulfillment—they actually have, though quietly (so far). Some publishers, such as Oxford University Press, fulfill many backlist orders by POD. This means there is no need for a book ever to go out of print, nor for a publisher ever to commit to another print run of a backlist title. As anyone who has worked in the book industry can tell you, these are seismic changes.
As for local POD—which has not yet significantly disrupted either publishing or librarianship—what makes the EBM and similar machines potentially so disturbing is the fact that they connect to a networked database of ebooks. The EBM is like a spigot attached to the side of a vat containing multiple millions of books; twist the faucet and out comes your book. Until the creation of the EBM, no individual has ever actually had ready access to anywhere near that many books. So why has the disruption not yet happened? Because, for now, the machines are very expensive and the metadata required to make the millions of digitized books actually findable is crude to nonexistent.
However, neither of these problems is likely to last. Together, they constitute a thin wall holding back a flood of easy and instant access to information that was, for hundreds of years, virtually unfindable and practically inaccessible to the vast majority of the world’s population. When—not if—it suddenly becomes available to everyone with an Internet connection and can be printed affordably and on demand on a widely-distributed network of POD machines, we can expect the consequences to be both enormous and largely unpredictable.