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Why the Demise of Print Media May Be Bad for Humanity

Tony Bradley 19 Mar 2012

In case you haven't heard--after 244 years as the foremost authority among printed reference material--Encyclopaedia Britannica is officially out of the encyclopedia printing business. The end of the print edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica is indicative of a larger trend from print to digital. Ultimately, though, the demise of print media may be bad for humanity as a whole.

The Up Side

Personally, I'm a huge fan of digital media. First of all, it is the primary means by which I make a living. Secondly, as a consumer I prefer to buy my books in digital format, and I prefer to read my news digitally.

Digital media is faster. As quickly as a writer such as myself can turn words into bits and bytes, they can be instantly available around the world.

Digital media is cheaper financially and ecologically as well. Print media requires trees to be cut, paper to be produced, material to be printed, and the resulting product to be shipped and distributed. It takes natural resources, energy, and fuel that cost money and damage the Earth.

With digital media, simply push a button and the material is live. The costs involved are basically the same whether it is read by ten people, or ten million.

I appreciate that I can carry an entire library in a tablet or e-reader that is thinner than most magazines, and weighs next to nothing. Kids can carry text books without lugging around a 50-pound backpack, and people can get new reading material in seconds from virtually anywhere.

There is a huge down side, though. Digital media doesn't have the permanence of print media.

Unlocking History

The Rosetta Stone is a very famous artifact that helped experts unlock the code to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone contains the same script written in three different languages--one of which is Ancient Greek. Because we already understood Ancient Greek, experts were able to cross-reference the two and decipher the hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone represents the ancient equivalent of print media. Without a physical, written text, much of history may be lost forever.

Rewriting History

What's worse than losing history? Changing it. Printed material represents a moment in time. We can travel through time through the written word and learn about events, discoveries, triumphs, and tragedies from accounts written hundreds or thousands of years ago.

With digital media, that may not be so easy. First of all, the media itself evolves rapidly. The written word on stone or paper has existed relatively unchanged for millennia, but if you stored a digital document on a 5.25 inch floppy disk twenty-five years ago it would be a challenge to access it today.

Even if you can access archived digital media, it is impermanent. I may have written something five years ago about how Palm Pilot would take over the world and crush Apple and Microsoft (I didn't, but I could have). I could go online today, though, and modify such an article to instead predict the catastrophic demise of the once great company.

What about history itself? History is somewhat flawed in the first place because it is generally written by the victors. The history of the United States as it is recorded and taught probably differs significantly from the version you might have if it were written by surviving members of the Mohican or Cherokee tribes.

Print media gives us a snapshot that can't be undone. Even if subsequent histories are rewritten, the original texts still reveal a different truth. If our only source of written history is digital, though, it can be altered to fit the whims or ruling political agenda of the day, and basically can never be fully trusted.

I love Wikipedia and use it frequently as a resource. I am also conscious, though, that the information is contains could be wrong, and is subject to change. The information printed in Encyclopaedia Britannica is--or at least was--not subject to such arbitrary or capricious alteration.

I am a huge fan of digital media, and digital reference sources. I don't really lament the demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica because I see its transition to digital as an evolution rather than an ending.

But, I am concerned about the lack of permanence, and the loss of the point-in-time snapshot that physical print media provides. As a part of the shift from print to digital media, we also need some method of marking the moment in time and archiving it with some permanence--like cached pages on a Google search, but for the Internet as a whole and all it contains.

What do you think? Is the decline in print media, and transition to digital media a good thing? Are there solutions out there to address the lack of permanence?