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Text Traffic Still Has the Right of Way On Today's Electronic Superhighway

WITH the media world abuzz over video-on-demand and the electronic superhighway, it might seem that the printed word is doomed - headed for some forgotten bookshelf or history's dustbin.

But don't count on it. So far, text is thriving in the information age.

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``It's not the dinosaur people thought it was two or three years ago,'' says Cathleen Black, president of the Newspaper Association of America. ``There is a joy to the printed word.''

``Text and video are like two feet of the culture,'' says Brian Stonehill, director of the Media Studies Program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. ``With every step forward we take with the image ... we have to keep up with a verbal response.'' (Gore on `information superhighway,' Page 2).

Take David Letterman's ``Late Show'' as an example, Mr. Stonehill says. The TV program's most popular item, the Top 10 list, is text flashed on the screen while Mr. Letterman reads it aloud.

Or look at computer networks. While sound and images are beginning to bounce around the Internet, the prototype for the electronic superhighway, the lion's share of the traffic continues to be text. Stonehill says electronic mail is growing more than 300,000 percent a year in the United States.

Why does text remain so popular?

``It's an abstraction,'' says Paul Saffo, research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. ``We have all devoted a large part of our lives in learning to use this abstraction. That's why it's so powerful.''

Even computer-software companies, who are adding sound and video to basic text, say the printed word is here to stay. ``It's not going to lose importance or gain importance,'' says Tom McGrew, vice president of market development and product planning for Compton's NewMedia Inc. in Carlsbad, Calif.

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The company has released the second version of its interactive encyclopedia, which retains all 9 million words of the paper-based Compton's Encyclopedia but adds sound, still pictures, and video. People are using video as a way to navigate through information, Mr. McGrew says.

``You're going to blow through something and view the video. Then you're going to say: `I want some more depth to it....' In the end, you're going to end up reading the text,'' he says.

Another software company, the Voyager Company, moved from Santa Monica, Calif., to New York last summer to be closer to the publishing world. ``We're really concerned with doing work that has significant content and a lot of that happens out here'' in New York, says company spokeswoman Alexandra Fischer. The company puts out books on CD-ROM and floppy disks. One of its T-shirts reads: ``Text: The Next Frontier.''

But text is changing. The computer industry is decoupling it from paper.

``Even though text grew up on crushed trees and smeared ink, there's no reason it should continue to be so,'' Mr. Saffo says. Stored electronically, it can be copied, edited, and sent almost effortlessly. ``We are going to discover that text's natural home is electronic, and that its few centuries' imprisonment on paper was a historical aberration. At this point, there is more information on-line than in all the libraries in the world.''

Not everyone sees electronic text as the wave of the future.

``I'm always hearing gurus ... saying that modern technology is going to replace paper,'' says John Moore, a computer programmer for most of his professional life who is now based in Salt Lake City. But electronic documents just don't measure up to written text, he says. ``I can't put `Post-it' notes on them. I can't write notes on the margins. I can't customize the information.''

When Mr. Moore writes programs on his computer, he periodically prints them out on paper to get a better feel for them.

BUT electronic text is becoming more interactive. Novelists are experimenting with software that allows readers to customize their fiction. The plot can be seen from the point of view of various characters. The ending may change depending on choices the reader makes.

``The on-line reading experience is less linear than the paper-based experience,'' Stonehill says. ``Copyright and what the creator had in mind are going to matter less and less and interaction and participation and customizing the material to your own taste are going to be more and more the mode.''

Of course, it's too early to say how future generations will use text. ``The big question is: Will people be able to read?'' says Gil Savage, a senior producer at Compton's NewMedia. Mr. Savage is pessimistic about his children's generation. ``Television and the computer games train [them] to process information in such a way that reading becomes more difficult,'' he says.

But some educators are more hopeful.

``Even with my students, who are wired with Nexis/Lexis and everything else, there is a reverence for the word,'' says Mary Dedinsky, associate dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, ``not necessarily ink on paper, but the text.''

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