At this moment, a resident of Columbus, Ohio, using a television set and a typewriter-like keyboard that costs about $500, has access to every bit of news printed in today's Dispatch, that city's daily newspaper.
Indeed, any one of millions of people in most of the industrialized world who sit in front of video tubes as part of their work as newspaper reporters, airlines reservation agents, order takers, lawyers and so forth, is aware that print on paper is being replaced by computer-stored data that can be displayed on the screen.
The technology at work for the Columbus newspaper reader and the others includes relatively common devices: the computer, the telephone and the television set (more properly, a cathode ray tube).
Anthony Smith's theme in "Goodbye Gutenberg" is that the decreasing cost of these items, particularly computer storage, has brought us to the threshold of "a third revolution in communications." The first revolution, he says, was the development of writing, which created the first means of storing knowledge that was not tied to the human memory. Writing transformed knowledge into information and permitted the creation of audiences "remote in time and space from the speaker."
The second revolution was Gutenberg's: printing. Coming into widespread use in the 15th century, printing spread knowledge, inspired new thought, but created a need for censorship on the part of government or the church. One institution that printing fostered was the newspaper. The culmination of this second age of communications, according to Smith, are the mass-circulation newspaper owned by large corporations, often facing little if any direct local competition, producing a rather bland potpourri. He also includes television and radio which, like newspapers, seek out mass audiences by creating a relatively homogeneous product.
The third revolution, by combining computers and telephon or cable networks with earth satellites, will allow individuals at home to pick and choose exactly what information (which includes entertainment) they want. If you want the 5 p.m. traffic report, the names of presidents of the United States who died in office, or the odds on Bettlebaum in the third race at Pimilico this afternoon, some publishers will have these and more in their computers -- and may also be able to confirm your bet (charged to your Visa account).
Smith's purpose is to look "at the newspaper . . . in the context of its altering circumstances and [show] how electronics has been summoned to resolve the internal tensions and crises which face the medium today." His conclusion -- that a "revolution" is underway -- is debatable: Evolution may be the more accurate term. Certainly, however, newspaper publishers have reason for concern, because electronic delivery of information -- advertising as well as the news -- could undermine their existing profitable franchises as local information providers. But Smith correctly points out that radical change will not come overnight -- or even in this decade. Among the factors that will slow down the introduction of new technology are the regulatory conflicts which must be resolved, particularly in the United States, and the need for a standardized technology so that a worldwide market can develope. And, "hanging over the entire development of the medium" is the marketing question: Is there a demand for these new services or will publishers and equipment manufacturers create the market without evidence of real consumer interest?
The strength of Smith's work is in his perceptive analysis of the limitations of technology: He tempers the "gee whiz" of electronics with the reality of the regulatory process, socio-cultural habits and norms, institutional barriers to innovation and the economic and financial concers of the marketplace. He demonstrates a thoughtful understanding or the changing role of newspapers, as well as many of the public and private policy issues arising from new technology.
Where the book comes untracked is in its attempt to predict the social impact of this "Electronic Alexandria." In speculating on the consequences of the future information order, he seems to ignore his own observation on the futility of predicting social patterns: "Mere extrapolation of a tendency or a current need can lead to absurd conclusions and false panics."
Yet Smith feels compelled to speculate on abstract notions of the transfer of ownership of knowledge from institutions and individuals who have created it "back to society or mankind in general," an effort hardly consistent with the pragmatism that characterizes much of the book. Smith (and his editor) are also guilty of less consequential but disturbing errors of fact, such as misspelling the name of the head of the largest newspaper publishing chain in the United States or telling Boston that it has a two-way cable system when a cable franchise is far from being awarded. These and numerous other lapses seriously damage the overall credibility of an otherwise serious, well-researched book.
But Smith's most useful message, for information providers as well as consumers of information, rings true: that there is an enormous chasm between the potential of a technology and its uses.