The Shift from Printed Word
to Electronic Text


One of my favourite songs from the 60s was by Bob Dylan. I think it was called Something is happening here but you don't know what it is do you, Mr Jones? And in the 60s we were actually referring to our parents and other people in the establishment who didn't know what the 60s was all about. I think that it pretty aptly, unfortunately, is pretty accurate about what we're all going through right now. And for me, the biggest problem that I see for all of us - people in this room, people in Silicon Valley etc, etc -- a lot of the problem it seems to me is a question both of scale -- time scale -- and of a perception of how things actually change.

The shift that we're looking at is much more profound, I think, than any of us are willing to accept. The fact that we're changing the way humans communicate, it's pretty clear that we accept that. But there's a really good chance that when we come out at some point in the distant future - and it might not be three years, it could actually be 50 or 100 years - that the way in which humans live and relate to each other will be completely different.

I noticed when I first started in this business - I was at a research lab that Alan Kay headed at Atari. The lab consisted of Alan and mostly a bunch of young people that came out of Nick Negroponte's lab at MIT. The people who came out of Nick's lab were all what I guess would be "30-somethings", but they were basically people who had not gone through the 60s, and I was amazed at the confidence they had in technology. For them, and I think still for many people in this business, if they were to chart out the future, if here's where we are now and here's where we're getting to, they saw it as a straight line. Machines somehow were going to change our lives in a very orderly fashion, things would get better and better and better and better.

We - let's see how nested I can make this - we did a videodisk several years ago at Voyager in two parts, and the first part was educational films of the 30s. These were really the films that taught us how to live, in the United States. The title of this was called New Horizons, and it had on the picture Rollo the Robot and Rollo was going to be your personal servant. And the theme of all these films of the 30s, was technology would set us free: things are going to get better and better.

Well, we did Volume Two , which was the 50s, and we called that one You Can't Get There From Here, with this wonderful picture of a woman dressed up in fancy high heels who had dropped some dog shit or whatever on the kitchen floor. The whole point was, sure these machines have got much better, but what life consisted of in the 50s was basically the channelling of women back into the home and the suppression of all kinds of vitality that had erupted during the war years, and that machines by themselves don't set us free.

And one of the reasons why I came to this conference - and I'm not disappointed having come to it - is that what we find in the United States, especially, is a complete inability to think about the long term results of what it is we're doing. I have taken on occasion to ask at conferences to audiences such as this: "If you had the ability to decide whether or not to invent the internal combustion engine in the form of an automobile, would you do it or not?" And I'm not just asking about things like the ecological impact, but also sociology - what it did to the growth patterns of our cities, etcetera, etcetera. Was the car a good thing or a bad thing? What I find interesting about asking it in the US is not so much what people's answer is, but the tremendous degree of antagonism that comes to me from even asking the question, as if the question itself is not fair. And the reason I keep asking the question is that I think that those who are involved in inventing technologies that over time are going to change the way that humans relate to each other, we should really think about the implications of what we're doing.

One of the things I think are great about the work that David (Liddle)'s doing is he's able to step back from the day-to-day realities of trying to invent something and keep a company alive, and he is able to think about the long-term implications of what these technologies can do. But I don't find enough of that, and so every chance I get I try to urge people to consider some of these questions.

I loved David Warner's presentation yesterday because he has some of the enthusiasm for working with what is dealt him as we've had at Voyager. We're a publishing company, we put things out onto the market place and we're pretty much stuck with whatever technologies people make for us, and I've learned, as have the other 60 or 70 people at Voyager to love the constraints and explore them. We are a traditional publishing company in the sense that our work consists principally in working with authors and artists, people who have something to say, something they want to communicate, and working with them to bring it out in an accessible form into the market place. To some extent that means helping them understand the possibilities of the technology, sometimes it just means playing the editorial role: helping them in effect to edit their material. Our work looks substantially like the work of a major publisher.

The interesting thing about the last ten years that we've been doing this is watching the transformation from being absolutely on the fringe, where the only people who were interested in what we were doing were technologists, or people who were interested in science fiction, basically. So what has happened, and it's just in the last year or two, is that people who are either accomplished authors and artists in their own right in traditional media, or some of the brightest talents who are coming out of the schools now, that they are starting to consider the computer not simply as a tool for typing out their book or for doing a painting or drawing on, but they're beginning to see the computer as a medium of expression. And that what we're seeing is the locus of serious communication is shifting. People who used to automatically sit down to write a book are now questioning themselves: `Gee, maybe I should sit down and write an electronic `something.' And to some extent this is trendiness, or people trying to get on a bandwagon, but I think if you go past that and go to what's really happening underneath, you see that people who are creative, who are excited about presenting their ideas to others are recognising the richness of the palette that's available to them on the computer. It's tremendously exciting as a publisher to see creative people in the world today who are wanting to express themselves in this medium.

I'm going to show you a couple of things that we've done at Voyager. We're almost ten years old and we have, I think, over 300 titles out for sale. Over half of what we've done is interactive video disks. In the United States we're known as the company that has pretty much set the standard for what a feature film looks like on a television set. I say that because I think Voyager understands both the value of motion pictures and certainly understands people's understanding of them.

However, most of the work that we've done with computers in the last couple of years, and the work that I'm going to show you today, has been work where we're been taking traditional text-based books and programmes and bringing them into the dynamic medium of the computer. We don't do this simply because we're stuck in the old medium that is books. I think that to the extent that I can put a forward-looking cast to this, that for the foreseeable future - and I mean for the next n -hundreds of years - text, communication by text, and I think I probably include spoken text, is probably the most compact and efficient mechanism we have for a high level of discourse. Clearly, none of us has the ability right now to have the kind of dialogue we've had at this meeting through pictures only. Someday, a thousand years from now we may have implants in our brains that let us generate tremendously powerful motion pictures to communicate ideas to each other. We may be able to do this by touching and linking our brains; I have no idea what's going to happen, but I know that right now that in order to talk about important things you actually have to have words.

I used to run a thought experiment with people in the United States, and ask them to try to talk about the origins of the Gulf War - just using pictures. And it's really quite impossible. You really have to have context, and context right now takes words. I consider it an important thing for us to do as a group to not pass up text when we go into this new medium. I think it's necessary to invigorate text so that it is in fact exciting in this medium. Because if we don't, what will happen is the people who are really powerful will still read, and the masses of people will get only images and they'll become dumber and dumber and we'll have a much more bifurcated society than we have now. And as a publisher, I somehow don't think that's an acceptable alternative.

So I show you these titles with the expectation that many of you, your eyes will glaze over and you'll say those are just words, that's old stuff. But I would challenge you...nothing I'm going to show you today solves this particular problem. The text here and in general looks much like in a book. I think the computer can do fabulous things with text, and I wanted to show you something that unfortunately came in a form that is not show-able. It's a magazine that comes out of the States called BLAM! done by two young guys in New York, and they have done a complete magazine that is text-based. But this text dances and lives on the screen in a way that I've never seen text live before, and to me it's a completely radical departure and one that I think is very important.

I'm going to show you more traditional-looking text on the screen but I'll leave you the challenge of thinking how to improve it. This is part of what we call the Expanded Books project. It was formatted for the Macintosh Powerbook. I can show you the functionality, but the aesthetic experience you have to have on the Powerbook. We set ourselves two goals: it had to look enough like a book that people who read would recognise it, and the second was to keep the functionality of the book intact. So this is what electronic text will look like in 1993 - it's the equivalent of the paperback book you buy in a drugstore, which means by definition it's just good enough, because people buy millions of them. We do know that notebook computers and PDAs will soon have extremely high-resolution screens, so this is going to get much better, and I can do most of the things I can do with a book.


updated 1993