I read the news last week: an old friend died. He’d been hanging on for years, a shadow of his former self. Once he was the leading authority on almost every subject. Someone you sought out to settle disputes or provide crucial information. He was strong and handsome, in that old-school professorial-leather-patched-sleeves kind of way.
But strength isn’t an adaptive asset anymore. Today, the nimble and ephemeral inherit the earth. And so Encyclopaedia Britannica has lain to rest its print edition, those gold-lettered pillars that held up your family’s bookshelves. It was a good run – 244 years. But all authoritarian regimes eventually fall.
So let us not praise gold-leafed-leather-bound knowledge. Rather, let us trumpet its passing. Let’s celebrate the fact that information now roams free, great herds of it. It lives and breathes, loosed from cages where it was allowed to reproduce only once a year, edition by edition.
There was a time not so long ago that if you heard a new word – “dialogued” – for example, you had to wait until the Oxford English dictionary published its annual edition to see if it really was a word. Today we turn nouns into verbs as easily as we “friend” people on Facebook. And when enough people use the word and write the word, it’s a word. We don’t need an authority’s stamp of approval.
As a writer, I like that. I made up a word once. About 20 years ago, I used the word “sniggered” in a column. The proofreader questioned it, pointing to Webster’s, which labeled it a “common misspelling of the word ‘snickered.’” I liked the guttural, onomatopoeia-ness of the word, and I prevailed.
I felt like a god. I’ve since found out that “snigger” isn’t a misspelling but a slang term for “snicker” that can be traced back to 1777. Oh well. I took solace in the fact that the word may never before have graced the pages of a newspaper.
The last edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica weighed in at 129 pounds and cost $1,395. It’s remarkable to consider how much information you can access digitally for $1,395, considering Wi-Fi is free at libraries, in most cities, and at every Starbucks. Or that a really great Internet connection can be as little as $40 a month.
Once that kind of money – $1,395 – bought you a durable good. I’ve bought cars for less than the cost of the final Brittanica print edition. Now, knowledge is no longer a durable good. It’s fluid. Wikipedia puts out a new edition every minute, as entries constantly change and evolve. And with near Britannica-like accuracy, according to a study published in the journal “Nature” in 2005.
That’s a beautiful thing. That’s progress. But the problem with progress is that it usually comes at a great cost. Switching from gas engines to electric adds so much to the sticker price that it doesn’t make sense for most Americans. High-speed rail could replace Amtrak, but the cost would be enormous.
That’s what makes the digital knowledge revolution so beautiful. It’s cheap. The math works. We can replace 129 pounds of books with an online subscription fee. Or with Wikipedia. And in the process we save the cost of all that paper and ink. We no longer have to burn the carbon it takes to produce and ship these mammoth sets of books, which weigh more than most lawn mowers.
E-books will continue to fall in price. And someday soon, college students will save hundreds of dollars a year by paying to access texts online, rather than in textbook form.
When the math works, life is beautiful. There’s no gridlock. We can afford to solve problems. Right now, ophthalmologists are developing phone apps that can diagnose eye problems, replacing machines that cost thousands of dollars and don’t travel easily to remote areas of the world. And your phone already has a GPS system that would have been the envy of NASA not so long ago.
That’s progress. And while it no longer comes leather-bound or looks as lovely on your shelves, it’s beautiful all the same.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.