National Writers Union Examines Electronic Publishing Issues
(First published in 1993)
The more we look at the emerging information technologies, the clearer it becomes that we are in the midst of an information revolution as profound and far-reaching as the one triggered by Gutenberg’s printing press.
The printing press was not merely a more efficient hand-scribe—it totally transformed the way in which information was created, reproduced, sold, and consumed. It created information markets and formats undreamed of in the medieval quill-pen universe. The printing press brought into being new economic institutions and relationships and altered old ones beyond recognition. We are experiencing a similar revolution, but instead of time measured in centuries, it is happening in a decade or less.
Today, what used to be separate industries—print, software, broadcast, film, telecommunications, web, music, and so forth—are quickly integrating into a single, over-arching information industry. This world infosphere is distributing intellectual property on demand from public and private sources in a multitude of formats: written, visual, audio, and multimedia.
Although we cannot now forsee the contours that markets will assume ten years from now (this was written in 1993 – 10 years from now would have been 2003. It has now been more than 20 years since this thesis was written), the GII has already become a world-wide electronic marketplace transmit, sell, and license the intellectual property in a variety of formats. But the intellectual property distributed through the GII does not spontaneously spring into existence in corporate data banks, it is created by creators—people whose talent and labor create the very substance of the information age. People who deserve a fair share of the fruits of their labor.
Do not think of the GII as a mere electronic extension of existing institutions. Think of it as an electronic Main Street of the global village. You will enter and travel this digital avenue via your computer, or your telephone, or your TV set, or with devices still on the drawing pads.
Fronting on these conceptual boulevards will be libraries, academic and research institutes, entertainment centers, and electronic emporiums selling all kinds of intellectual property. If you want a book, an article, a film, a song, a radio show, a piece of art, or a database, it will be electronically downloaded in minutes to the device of your choice or physically delivered to you overnight. And instead of stocking 10,000 titles, the electronic bookstore will stock millions from all over the world.
The National Writers Union would like to see these cyberspace agoras nurture a new flowering of intellectual freedom and experience. These forums could be shaped to encourage the development of new forms of information and intellectual property such as dynamic books with which users interact and that change as they are used. They could provide exciting new multimedia genres and information formats, virtual-reality education and entertainment environments, and entire new art forms.
On the other hand, they could be reduced to no more than Madison Avenue hucksterism, the digital equivalent of TV shopping channels. We hope they will provide new avenues for human creativity and communication, but we fear that, like mass-market television, they could be turned into vast wastelands of lowest-common-denominator mediocrity, consumerism, and indoctrination. If authors want to influence the direction these new markets take, the time to speak up and act is now.
The laws and customs that govern commerce in our traditional trading centers will not necessarily apply to this new type of bazaar. Moreover, the electronic Main Street will be a world boulevard for those able to access it. The applicability of any single nation’s laws is unknown. This means that we must think on a global, not national, scale.
Technology is irrevocably altering the nature of our industry. We must rid ourselves of vestigial thinking about the “American publishing industry.” Forced together by rapid technological change, industries we once considered separate computing, consumer electronics, entertainment, communications, and publishing—are transforming themselves into global, vertically-integrated, multimedia leviathans. Just as the different disciplines blur and merge, so do the economic giants that dominate those fields.
Sony buys movie studios; Viacom buys Paramount, which owns Simon & Schuster. The phone companies are muscling into cable TV, and the cable TV companies want to sell long-distance phone service. Time Warner is developing networks based on cable-TV lines, while Oracle Corporation is researching information networks delivered via radio frequencies. One CEO quoted in the Wall Street Journal said, “You sort of see the point where the world will team into two, three, maybe four global alliances over the next five years.” That is their world-view. We advocate one that is more egalitarian.
- The Economics of Technological Change
- Access Issues
- End-User Issues
- Commerce Issues
- Sale-of-Work Issues
- Databases and Collection Issues
- Writing for the Web
- Online Transactions
- Libraries and Authors
Conclusion, More to Come
Writers, and creative people in general, revel in change, even when the change causes problems for us. This is not the first time that technological change has challenged us. The huge corporations that are stampeding into the technological revolution may try to trample us, but we will not let them. In times of tremendous change, there is plenty of opportunity for us to assert ourselves, both as creators who need to earn a living and as members of the public who would reinforce democratic values and the vitality of human culture.
Every writer, photographer, artist, musician—all creative people whose work will appear on computer networks—can play a role in guiding change toward fairness, openness, and opportunity for everybody in the information age.