Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Specific Dates of Change

Interesting question via Tweet showed up via @AdrienneCorn:
So, what year are you guessing this full blown paperlessness will debut?

I guess my response would have to be that there isn't going to be a single year in which society decides paper's time has run its course. (And mind you, when I say 'run its course', I'm pretty much talking about paper's role in the printing and publishing industries; we'll still see paper used in a variety of formats from cardboard to toilet-paper to napkins... and I hope that paper-in-schools will see its growth actually in expanded art and hands-on arts and crafts classes.)

Rather than try to pin-point a specific date, I'd reference back to the changes digitization has already brought to the music industry, audio-video production, and library cataloging.

In the first case, the decade has seen 'invisible' MP3s by-and-large replace physical CDs. No one would have seen that one coming back in '91 when Nirvana broke. Likewise, no one really knows what the forecast looks like for the magazine, newspaper, and publishing industries. Schools might wind up going paperless by default.

Second case: I remember when I started recording music we had to scrounge up money to buy tape and rent time in a recording studio. While studios are certainly still around, tape is now pretty much just the domain of audiophiles who can afford to shell out thousands of dollars on reels and reel-to-reel machines. The rest of us use our Macs and record whenever and where-ever we like (for better or worse, this isn't a matter of comparing analog to digital... it's just a statement of fact).

Same goes for digital access. Whereas in the past, a good question from a kid in class might prompt a "Good question. Go look that up on your free time.", a good question from a kid now prompts: "Good question. Let's look that up right now". And within seconds, we've all learned something.

I think this has enormous implications for school libraries. Where earlier, libraries were prized for the breadth and depth of their collections, the new libraries are prized for quality of and savvy in access. I recently visited a huge school library which upon first glance looked quite impressive; until upon closer inspection I noticed that no less that a third of the collection consisted of out-of-date encyclopedias, atlases, and job-reference books.

The third case should be obvious: Boolean search killed the card catalog. It's a case where technology fundamentally altered the way an institution functions.

All three of these cases took place over a period of years. And none of them completely wiped out what came before (at least not yet). You might want to go to your local (natch, 'corporate') CD/Book/Magazine/Coffee joint to pick up a CD for $20. Surely you might be in a band so rocking, you don't mind paying $10,000 to record your new album. And maybe -- and I admit without shame that I fall into this catagory -- you just love roaming the stacks of a big old library.

Well, you can still do all of those things. It's not the purpose of paperlessness to destroy any of those things. Just like it wasn't the purpose of the cell phone to replace the landline.

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