The Northern Spy
Back to the Vision
Where have we been?
The late 1970s and early 1980s were years of ferment, of rapid change, of optimism. They were the best of times, the first of times that would become so tumultuous as to put even the wrenching changes of the industrial revolution in the shade.
We were barely past the days when you built personal computers in your dad's garage from surplus parts. The Apple ][ was cutting-edge technology, prized by accountants as a "Visicalc machine" (after the first spreadsheet program). Leading industry magazines included BYTE and Call-A.P.P.L.E., the IBM PC hadn't yet been marketed, and few other than insiders had heard of Microsoft. Little people formed self-help co-ops, user groups and small companies, and since no one could tell them it was impossible, they accomplished great things.
We thought things could only get better. Thus, even as the foundation for today's hardware and software empires were being laid, your old men dreamed dreams, and your young men saw visions—of a new kind of civilization, a universal information age that would replace the passing industrial age, which itself had as thoroughly displaced the agrarian and hunter-gatherer civilizations before it.
What were those visions?
Information, we boldly forecast, would become the reigning paradigm, the standard commodity, pushing all aspects of the lunchbucket economy into the background of invisible infrastructure. Most jobs would depend on computing technology to buy, add value to, and sell information. Work would be so productive the additional leisure time would enable new artistic endeavours, themselves empowered by the new technologies. Creativity would be the watchword, with far more people making a living on the merit of their ideas, not with their muscle.
A Creative Vision -- The Metalibrary
Much of that vision centred on what I called the Metalibrary. A civilization's metalibrary is the set of all its knowledge (information or technique), together with the means of storing and accessing it. "The Metalibrary" is the universal, comprehensive, everywhere-accessible information store, including data, journals, magazines, newspapers, books, TV programs, movies, artwork—in short, everything humankind knows, makes, writes, or has ever collected on all possible media—much more than the best effort so far, the Library of Congress, because the text and images would be digitized, properly indexed and everywhere instantly available electronically.
Anything could be posted or read by anyone (for an appropriate fee, and perhaps vetted and approved by an editor or other cultural guru). All would be hyper-indexed in space and time, so that any kind of multi-media thread could be followed through the Metalibrary. When someone created or added value to information, threads containing it would self-update, and their share would be recorded. On subsequent access to the item, the master accounting software would deduct a few cents from the user's account and credit the creators', by their respective fractions. One might get a hundredth of a cent from someone reading a piece she coauthored for Ladies' Home Journal in 1967, a nickel for a copy of a software routine, a dollar from a novel, or ten for a full blown application, but with a potential audience in the billions, it would add up in the end.
On the technology side, I anticipated large, voice-activated Metalibrary Terminals (MTs)—flat screens that could be rolled up or hung on a wall for displaying static images of artwork (fee to relevant museum), live symphony orchestras, or sporting events. These would supplement desktop supercomputers, and the pocket wireless devices I called PIEAs (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliances) that would be part computer, book reader, telephone, and network interface—providing instant, on-the-move connectivity to the Metalibrary. The latter would have more than the necessary resolution to satisfy readers of National Geographic, and could deliver video synthesis with one's favourite character reading the daily news of one's choice. Walter Cronkite as anchor, Marilyn Monroe as the traffic reporter, and Winston Churchill calling the Canuck game play by play.
One incidental would be a vast technology-assisted flowering of the arts, and in 1984 I coined the term "New Renaissance" to describe this phenomenon. Many people would have more time and better tools to write, to paint, to sculpt, to express their artistic nature in ways not yet dreamed of. Even more would have the time and resources to be their customers, albeit only for a fraction of a cent per viewing.
Yes, the early 1980s were heady, visionary times. I think most of the now old crocs who threw such ideas about with abandon saw the third wave we rode as being mostly about empowering individuals for their lives, their jobs, their creativity, and their personal control over information. The revolutions were not about technology, per se. Big brother would fail, little brother and sister would win out. That old pessimist Jacques Ellul was wrong. Technology wouldn't dehumanize, it would make life better.
But human nature, or sin if you've a mind to call it that, tells us he was partly right, too. Even as I agreed with other information theorists that the Soviet Empire would fall, done in by its inability to put chains on information, I stated that once it did, "the Eastern Europeans, freed from artificial restraints, will go back to their centuries'-old hobby of cutting each other's throats." It seemed too obvious to comment likewise concerning the Middle East.
Where are we now?
Technology and publishing industry outcomes have likewise been mixed. Those old Call-A.P.P.L.E. and CompuWest articles and 1980s speeches whose content alternated among lessons on writing machine language, reviews of the latest software, and attempting to pick the bones of the future, appear simultaneously prescient and naively quaint when read today. True, the Metalibrary does exist in nascent form as the world wide web, the PIEA is partway realized as the PDA/book reader, flat screens are starting roll out, and the industry has indeed put supercomputers on desktops, but problems have arisen that are worse than mere bumps on the road, and the benefits of the great information age are so far decidedly mixed. Are we there yet? No.
First, only a small minority of people are interested in excellence, fewer still create it, and not many of the latter both realize what they have done and are capable of marketing the fruit of their genius.
The classic example is Apple computer corporation, the most creative and influential single corporation of the last five decades, which never seemed to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In the mid eighties they'd already got right the windowing operating system (as much as anyone could then), but failed to market it effectively, and lost out to competing products that even today are well behind in capability, reliability, useability, security and overall quality.
Later, Apple, with the Newton, was also on the verge of getting the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) right, but threw it all out the window in a downsizing move, abandoning the field to products that may never catch up. Indeed, the technology scrap heap is littered with the wreckage of superb hardware and software that few understood or knew about until much too late.
Likewise, many excellent books are never considered by the corporate publishing conglomerates. After all, the author is unknown, un-agented, writes outside the rigid boundaries of the genre boxes, or otherwise fails to fit into the groove of the latest publishing fad.
On the other hand, technology companies have sometimes introduced, with great marketing fanfare, products that were so breathtakingly bad they weren't even wrong. Likewise, publishing companies have occasionally broken from the mediocrity mould long enough to produce books so poorly conceived and written as to be an insult. Someone was in too big a hurry, hadn't a clue, or misread the gullibility of the consumer, but their putative product's oblivion was richly deserved.
How have others fared in their attempts to build my PIEA, key to the vision of portable information access? Palm has a variety of useful pocket devices, but they are too small to emulate paper for comfortable eBook reading, and the company appears stuck in a rut, not sure where to turn next. NuvoMedia made a promising start at getting the book reader right as the Rocket, then, in a frenzy of corporate control-freakism by new owner RCA, determined to manage all book reader content themselves. Consequently one cannot now place one's own HTML files into their current readers. Franklin and hiebook also manage content, but at least allow users to have creation tools, albeit only on a single computing platform, and that not the one most discriminating artists and scientists would choose if left to their own devices. Telephone manufacturers have also tried with mixed success to extend their appliances. But the bottom line is that no one is currently close to getting the PDA/book reader right technically or to managing and marketing it correctly as an open box. And that's one reason eBook sales are in the tank.
Second, not only is excellence rare, but the general population accepts not merely mediocrity, but poor workmanship. Thus, marketing shills can easily convince most of us that an inadequate product adequately answers our wants. Manufacturers of the late industrial age counted on this when they invented planned (and later forced) obsolescence, that is, deliberately shoddy goods. Today, one sees this reflected on the web, where thousands of pages display properly (if at all) on only a single browser, as if no other products exist, as if no one had ever invented standards. Those same problems prevented the early readers from accepting a sizeable fraction of the available eBooks, or displaying the others well, due to flaws in the HTML coding, and the manufacturers' unwillingness to support style sheets.
Beta-quality software is frequently sold to the general public for testing and refining, and accepted as "good enough" for long enough that the manufacturer can get away with charging a hefty upgrade price for fixing bugs that should never have been allowed out the door. The original "killer-ap," the spreadsheet, in its implementation as Excel, may be the best piece of software ever produced. But the industry has yet to deliver a good word processor, and some other applications are pitifully bad. On the hardware side, there have been many PDAs, book readers, pocket computers of varying utility, and other hand-held reading and computing devices, some quite useful, others inadequate pseudo-clones, and still others, such as IBM's PC Jr., mere landfill fodder.
Thus, if we attempt to look forward, we ought to predict that successful product(s) will neither be the best, the first invented nor the most useful, but rather those just good enough to be sold to an all-too-uncritical public by clever well-financed marketers. (And, how many times did I wish through the nineties that Apple had a clue about marketing.) Matters are so throughout the hi-tech industry, an unsavoury fact of commerce we have come to accept.
The book publishing industry, that closed, monopolistic domain of incestuous editors and a handful of superstar writers turning out mediocre books, is no different. No room there for individual empowerment, the small publishing house, and especially not for the neophyte author with a cross-genre book. Be honest. When future critics look back on this material, how much will they acclaim as great literature? Almost none.
On a deeper level, acceptance of mediocrity has led to a cynical, self-indulgent and insular society. We know everything will wear out and have to be replaced by a new version in a year. We don't care any more. Simultaneously, we have failed to reap much of a productivity dividend from all our modern techniques because (a) we don't use them long enough, and (b) we've been too busy making money to fuel our social treadmill. Consequently, instead of more leisure time, we have less. Couldn't we have done better? Couldn't we still?
Third, a small minority of us lost sinners live only as the most degraded of vandals, pursuing the destruction of both physical and electronic property either from some virulent ideology or out of a pyromaniac-like desire to witness mass destruction. Since most consumers, and nearly all vendors paid little attention to security, virus, Trojan horses, theft of intellectual property, and wanton destruction have become the order of the day. September 11 was a spectacular manifestation of such a mindset, but not the only one. I recall my technician scoffing when I told him three years ago that the black hats could do nasty things with eMail. What we have seen thus far is only a beginning, unless a lot of people start paying careful attention to detail. Meanwhile, don't send me eMail attachments unless I request them. They'll be automatically deleted.
Where does this leave us?
In sum, partway to the New Renaissance and the information age. The hardware is fair, the software inadequate, and the vision grown cloudy. We're a little lost, casting about for a roadmap, seeking a new vision of where we're going, the agenda co-opted not by big brother government, but by big uncle corporations. Is there still a chance for the little independent scribbler, programmer or publisher to instantiate the vision of the early 1980s and build anew, perhaps on a framework other than the mega-corporate, one that does empower individuals? If so, how can it happen?
What is today's vision?
I'll be practical, trying to explain where we seem to be going, how I think we're going to get there, and who might help.
First, on the technology front, we can be confident that hardware and software capabilities will continue to improve. Today's desktop machines are to those of a decade hence as the alphabet to Shakespeare, as plastic bricks to Bill Gates' mansion, mere building blocks for the next step. And, there is more to this than the faster, bigger, better we're getting with today's desktops, which, now that they have also become fashion statements (like Apple's iMac), demonstrate a maturing of sorts that goes beyond being mere appliances. [I assume continued competition in hardware and operating systems as well as renewed choice in publishing and software production. Otherwise, innovation will cease, prices will rise dramatically, and the individual creative artist will remain captive to mega-corporations on all counts.]
No, the next important technology wave sees someone get the portable device right, or close enough. I want a combination broadband cell phone/data link, PDA, and book reader—capable enough to handle contacts, manage phone calls, and do the basic calculator schtick, and simultaneously sufficiently large-screen to offer a respectable book reading environment for its hundred or so stored titles. We're a ways from building screens into contact lenses, growing them in the human eye, or providing direct cellular interfaces to the brain, so the device I describe is too large for a pocket, but could be worn in a belt pouch—shades of 1960s era slide rules! Call it a smaller, lighter Newton, or perhaps a larger, more capable Palm. This one's on track. It'll happen. Flat screens with electronic ink are also coming, so we can someday unroll large ones onto a wall, or fold them up like paper and stuff them in a shirt pocket or purse.
What is the motivation for building such a device? Not selling novels; the market is too unproven, too sparse. Rather, I suspect it is textbooks, whose prices have risen more than those of any other single component of education over the last two decades, without, I might add, enriching their authors in the process. Even in a small jurisdiction a textbook adoption for a required course may mean tens of thousands of copies at up to $100 a crack in paper. If students could instead take their book reader to the store and download the work for $20, with half that going to the author, we'd cut down fewer trees, so the environment, authors and consumers would be all better off. The collateral benefit to authors of fiction is that students could also read novels on the same device they use to make their cell phone calls, track appointments, take notes, and do calculus.
Who will build it? Probably not the giant publishing companies, software houses, or computer manufacturers. After all, the paradigm here is disintermediation, techniques that connect the author directly to the customer, with the hardware providing the infrastructure or conduit, not becoming a means to control the information. "Would Apple?" you ask. Perhaps. A PDA/reader is an obvious missing spoke on their vaunted digital hub, but the company shows little obvious interest. We need a visionary who doesn't have a need to control content, or a company that markets the right product without realizing they've released something truly open and truly useable until it's too late for either they or government to clamp down content controls. MS-DOS and later the world wide web became ubiquitous precisely because their creators didn't lock them down under their own control.
Second, with respect to software, don't talk to me about useability, much less about excellence, if you haven't at least got the words "standard-compliant", "cross-platform", and "portable" in the same sentence. Writers and software developers need creative tools that are developed for their use, not solely to multiply useless features, please vendors' sensibilities or add to their bottom line. At a minimum, authors need to be able to create and download their own work into their own portable device without using someone else's computer or a remote bookshelf. Let us be professionals, controlling what resides in their own workspace without restrictions. We need to have this ability interchangeably on any platform, without becoming technical gurus, without having to worry about file formats, without subjecting our work to corporate scrutiny just to make it portable. One possible way is to employ only PDF or XML for output and only hardware and software that can read them. Proprietary file formats and conversion steps have to go. Here I see some encouraging steps in the right direction, but no clear leadership.
Third, we need infrastructure that is vendor neutral and is outside large corporate control, the latter being by its very nature inimical to new ideas and techniques and only able to stay the course in the hopes of squeezing more profit from dated ideas. There's nothing wrong with profit, but society has other goals and so do individuals. These need not involve being co-opted into the pervasive corporate culture. Indeed, it isn't possible to exercise the creativity that could take the New Renaissance to its greatest potential if we are but customer numbers in the corporate technology database.
Yes, digital rights management (copy protection) is necessary, or more artists and writers than ever fail to make their voices heard. No, it does not need to be under government or corporate control, nor should it be. All this should be handed over to independent standards bodies such as ISO, and the large vested interests strictly limited in their influence. Only then can we achieve the PIEAs "write once, read anywhere" portability. Moreover, since all copy protection schemes can be broken, even this is no substitute for the disintermediation that can drive prices so low we'll all make money on volume, a dime at a time.
Fourth, creative people must commit themselves to excellence.
I believe part of being created in God's image is that we, in turn, are creative. In his providence we now have technology to enrich this creativity greatly. Let's live up to that potential by demanding excellence of ourselves.
Writers create books. Developers create software. Done right, both are planned carefully, then sweated over and polished, word by word, line by painful line. The best products will be used or read, provided there is a mechanism to get the work into the marketplace. Is my own writing good enough? Not yet, but thanks to my many critics, it's improving. Indeed, part of professionalism is giving the skills we do develop back to the community, building each other up, encouraging to new levels of excellence. The time we invest making someone else a better writer or software developer is never lost, it goes into building a better society. And don't ask it to be paid back. Ask the recipient to pay it forward.
We must demand excellence of one another. Don't give out positive reviews to badly written books just to gain a website link. Don't publish error-ridden books just to add to your list. Don't release or use software that you know has bugs. Don't accept money to agent, to read, or to publish. Do build community, do participate to make software clubs or writers' organizations work. If we can re-develop the kind of community that software engineer-artists had two decades ago, many more of us will sell far more books and software, and a few will become excellent. No one company will have a monopoly, the overall market will be vastly larger, and it will be of far higher quality.
We must demand excellence of the products and tools we use. Tell RCA, hiebook, Franklin, and the pocket PC manufacturers, tell the language and tool vendors you won't write for proprietary formats, in their non-standard notations, or on their closed platforms, but will work only in standard, open, cross-platform, standard-compliant environments, so that your audience is maximized, not constrained to a narrow single-vendor pipeline. We don't want to waste our creative time on trivia like file translation or porting our software. We need easier-to-use creation tools, and should not be satisfied by a publisher, writer, or client who is prepared to take short-cuts for immediate gain while sacrificing integrity and with it long term viability.
The Bottom Line
The vision of the late 1970s and early 1980s is still alive, or at least can be given CPR, despite our having allowed ourselves to be herded into corporate-controlled mediocrity for two decades. This very month, A.P.P.L.E., that quintessential prototype of user-group software authors from the turn of the 1980s is being re-founded. Likewise, the establishment of on-line publishers, writers' communities, and the release of standards-based and easier-to-use tools for software and book development all suggest we're getting back on track to individual empowerment. Give us the right tools, the right technology, unfettered access to markets, let us commit to community and to excellence, and we will yet realize the dreams of us old crocs, our visions as young men; we will yet participate in a comprehensive and enduring New Renaissance—one driven not by powerful institutions, but constructed ground-up by individual software creators and book writers who, out of our mutual interest, are prepared to cooperate actively. For in the long run, neither great literature nor great software can be mass created.
My advice: Fulfil the creative mandate. Join a club like A.P.P.L.E. or a writers' group like EPIC and help make it work. Keep on dreaming, writing, developing, promoting, encouraging, publishing, building one another up, and do so with excellence.
--The Northern Spy
Bibliography: Selected articles and talks
Sutcliffe, Richard J.
An Apple For Nellie - The History of Computing in Langley Schools, Call-A.P.P.L.E., October 1983 p.27-35
The Wired University, CompuWest July 1984, p.18-21
Education for the New Renaissance, CompuWest August 1984, p.18-23
Introducing Computer Science in the New Renaissance (Part 1), CompuTek Nov 1984, p.18-21
Introducing Computer Science in the New Renaissance (Part 2), CompuTek Dec 1984, p.18-22
Ethics, Computers and the High Tech Society The Northwest Mathematics Conference, Richmond, Summer 1985
Ethical Issues in the High Tech Society, Computers in Education: Roads Less Travelled--the 15th Annual Conference of the NW Council for Computer Education, Seattle, Feb 7, 1986
A Distribution Paradigm for the Fourth Civilization, in the electronic journal TidBITS #184 July 12, 1993
The Metalibrary and Higher Education: A Conversation about the Implications of and Suitable Christian responses to New Internet-Based Technologies--for the With Heart and Mind Conference of Christian higher education. Trinity Western University May 14-15, 1999
Electronic Books--Putting the Fourth Civilization's Metalibrary into Students' Hands, Connections 2001. Whistler BC, May 5, 2001
Websites of products and companies mentioned:
Library of Congress: http://lcweb.loc.gov/
The Northern Spy: http://www.thenorthernspy.com