WHEN alchemist Pi Sheng mixed glue and clay together in 11th-century China, he probably didn't have my press card in mind. Nevertheless, his goo, baked and stuck onto an iron plate, created the world's first movable type. When Johann Gutenberg improved the process three centuries later, the foundation for modern publishing was laid.
Within 50 years, the number of books in Europe soared from 30,000 to more than 9 million. The reading public expanded from clergy and nobility to an increasingly broad class of readers - readers who one day would pay for a staggering number of novels, magazines, and, of course, newspapers. Writers owe a lot to movable type.
Fast-forward to 1993. I am sitting in front of a computer screen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C. Beside me, Paul Jones, director of a university project called SunSITE, is merrily clicking his mouse. He's showing where publishing may be headed. It's thrilling, unsettling stuff.
Mr. Jones is logged onto the Internet, a vast system of government, university, and corporate computer networks. His project has a special arrangement with the White House to publish full electronic versions of presidential documents over the Internet. Anyone on the Internet can log onto SunSITE and read through the latest Clinton speech, the federal budget, the North American Free Trade Agreement, or a background briefing. The documents are indexed and cross-referenced. There's no fee. SunSITE is funded through a grant from Sun Microsystems.
But Jones is more interested in demonstrating his multimedia work on the Internet. He calls up the text of a speech Clinton gave here when the university celebrated its 200th anniversary. Then he clicks his way into the Smithsonian photo archives for a picture of the president. When that's up on screen, he clicks on it, and the computer starts to play a recording of Clinton's speech. When the President gave that address, SunSITE simultaneously uploaded the voice and video over the Internet - the first presidential speech ever ``broadcast'' in this manner.
``In a way, it's a broad Gutenberg revolution,'' Jones says. He foresees a time when writers will be able to link clips of video, sounds, and images to create a new kind of book. The technology to do this, called hypertext, already exists. ``When hypertext really gets interesting is when you break the book paradigm,'' he says. In other words, readers will meander their way through novels without necessarily following a plot line. That's intriguing. But I think the real publishing revolution will not be in new forms of communication but in who does the publishing.
From Gutenberg's day to our own, the world has been pretty much split into publishers and readers. You couldn't publish something without access to a printing press. With a personal computer and a laser printer, you can print out your great ideas. But disseminating those ideas - to publish them broadly - still usually requires a book company, broadcast station, or some kind of publisher. The Internet changes all that.
Anyone who can log onto the Internet can now easily and cheaply publish his or her ideas. As Vice President Al Gore Jr. put it in a speech earlier this month: ``We'll send and receive, not just on the telephone but across the full range of the new technologies. We'll turn from consumers into providers.''
Until now, the Internet has been the preserve of mostly academicians, scientists, and government officials. But that is changing, too. On-line systems, such as Delphi Internet Services, are offering (or will soon) full access to the Internet for about $10 a month. Next year, Spry Inc. and O'Reilly & Associates promise software that will simplify navigation around the Internet.
``It changes some of the rules of the power center,'' Jones says. ``If you gather good information and you present it well ... you have a good market out there.''
Most people will probably still want someone (or something) to boil down the information roaring into their information ``driveway.'' Who will do it? The choices are nearly infinite. Those of us who carry press cards will have to stay on our toes.
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