The Northern Spy: Communication and the New Renaissance
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The Northern Spy: Communication and the New Renaissance

By Rick Sutcliffe

A very long time ago even by non-Internet standards, the Spy advised people owning stock in typewriter companies to sell. In that same era he opined "collect postage stamps young woman, for soon they won't make them any more".

To the former, anyone under thirty-five might today say "what's a typewriter?" The Spy was right. But to the latter, he was only half so. True, anyone under ten today is likely to say the same thing about stamps in just a few more years, as post offices around the world slowly go insolvent. Mind, they have no one to blame but themselves, for several reasons, not all due to the Internet. The result is there aren't many collectors after all.

First, because too many postal authorities, beginning in the former Soviet block (demise also predicted back then) debased the product by contracting with American stamp companies selling by approvals to unsuspecting children for the manufacture of "stamps" that were never intended for postage and indeed were often pre-cancelled and could not be so employed. In the case of "countries" like Maluku Seletan which never really got going or even had a post office, several dozen stamps exist, all mint, none ever having been used or having any value.

The company and the relevant government each got a cut, and the business was for a time lucrative enough to represent the major source of foreign (read "real") money for some penurious nations. The disease spread to Africa, South America, the far east, and to a lesser extent even the industrialized world. Colourful but still bad, these fake stamps overwhelmed the good, and philatelists noticed. Why, even in the sixties, the Spy called most Eastern European stamps "wallpaper".

Recently, and approaching possible retirement age--someday, maybe--he decided to take his own advice and revive his old collection--not that he hadn't been accumulating post office releases, album supplements, and shoeboxes full of stamps on paper over the years, but he hadn't "put them away". Sadly, he discovered that the proliferation of stamps with no philatelic value had accelerated.

Those who are still in the hobby often only accumulate Western Europe, Canada, and the United States, whose postal services generally avoided such mistakes, but even those countries do much of their stamp business directly to collectors. So, take a look around. Not only are there now fewer collectors and stamp companies in the mail order business these days, the number of retail stores, stamp clubs, album manufacturers, and so on, is but a tiny fraction of what it once was. Too many "stamps" talking up space in albums have never been not worth collecting.

Second, because many of those same post offices, though granted monopoly rights on Internet services early in the game, failed to understand the new business, mismanaged it, and lost it to others. To be fair, telephone and transportation companies did the same (Canadian Pacific Railway telecommunications division being the canonical example). This is a classic case of established business entities (as a class) failing to "get" change, and being unable to discern a new box inside which to think. It happens all the time in technology--except at Apple, where the "think different" campaign may have been intended as much to define the culture among their own employees than aimed at mindmolding the general public.

Third, because at the same time as the old snail mail business was slipping away to bits and bytes, post offices around the world also failed to devise new tasks and new lines of business for their employees to keep working. Junk mail (flyer distribution) could have worked, but in Canada at least, it can be handled more efficiently at lower cost by targeted contractors than by a large delivery service like the post office. So, soon there will be little or nothing left, even the ephemeral memories evoked by postage stamps will be forgotten.

The Spy will keep his collection, maintain Canada and possibly the United States pages, and put away what else comes his way, but as stamps will mean little to the new generation, they are increasingly unlikely to become collectors in the first place, and the little pieces of paper will gradually have no collectible value to anyone. Bad stamps and better technology drove out the industry, hobby and all.

The parable can be applied to print whose technology of the sixties is unrecognizable today, and which industry is in an equally steep decline.

For instance, back in the day, magazine stories were typed in the editorial office, set in lead type slugs on a linotype machine (look it up--a monster of a Rube Goldberg contraption whose brass "fonts" massed about fifty kilograms and took several minutes to hoist out and change) and proof galleys were run off on a letterpress. These, along with graphical elements, were pasted up in four-up (or more) fashion, and photographed at full size. The enormous negative was touched up to remove imperfections, then "burned" to an aluminum plate (one per colour) and this was mounted on an offset press to print the magazine pages (books too).

Newspapers were done a different way, on large roll-fed presses.) The sheets were folded, assembled and stitched or stapled into the finished product, then cut to size to release pages from the top folds, covered (where appropriate) and sent out for sale or in the mails.

As an aside, the old lead slugs were recycled by melting them down and casting them into new ingots for the Linotype machine. Those fond of social analogies should note that in a real melting pot, it is the sludge that rises to the top. The Spy, besides running a press, folder, binder, and cutting machine, and helping to change font cases on the lino, used to skim it off and discard it.

Even in shops that still do printing, most of this technology would be little more than a vague rumour to graphics arts specialists today, who compose everything on a computer and send it directly to the press.

But surely this too is obsolete. Smaller screens today have a better print resolution than print, and larger ones are gaining the same capabilities. There is no reason beyond the inertia of the traditional, the resistance of copyright holders, and (so far) the inability of software producers to generate something as good as or better than the turn-the-page reading experience -- particularly for textbooks.

As the Spy has noted here several times, the advent of an acceptable (even if not great) electronic textbook reader software will wipe out the entire hopelessly broken paper textbook industry almost overnight. The first to achieve a better paradigm in electronic textbooks will own the industry. Publishers may still buy rights, edit, and market, but they won't print, or distribute to the long chain of middlemen that today keep prices at ridiculous levels for the end user. It will be nice when my students can walk into the university bookstore and put down, say, fifty bucks to get downloads of the whole semester's texts, instead of forking over a grand for a fifty kilos of dead tree versions. It can't come any time soon.

Make no mistake, though. Generating a smooth, cool reader experience even for novels is not easy. For technical material where there's much page turning back and forth, the difficulties are daunting. But the prize is worth it for the boys and girls who labour along the secret hallways at One Infinite Loop.

But it can also be applied to the current generation of computers
which no more represent the maturity of such technology than the original Apple computer did (make your own current loop interface to a Teletype, store programs on punch paper tape, and later on magnetic cassettes, program in Integer BASIC and assembler, no lower case letters, hi-res screens eighty columns of text only, and total -- not the useable -- memory even on the Apple ][ series maxed out at 16K.)

The Spy still wanst his PIEA (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance--think an iPad with a neural interface and everywhere connectivity) and/or my foldable, rollable MT (Metalibrary Terminal) that is, on a single sheet of durable plasti-paper, a combination better-than-retina screen, touch type and voice input device, and distributed, networked computer--all described by him decades ago.

Between the two, and depending on the size, you experience (sight, hearing, smell, etc) newspapers, magazines, fiction and non-fiction books, display digitized art on your walls (rented from the owner), watch sporting events, attend concerts and plays, communicate, contribute to metaperson composition of new creative works (for microshare royalties), handle all aspects of finances, and telecommute to work (as needed). Gone (and as forgotten as the typewriter) will be telephone, standalone computer, monitors, print anything (including money), and television.

Hey -- it's all been in the Spy's novels for years, but we're only partway there. It's all about how we communicate information, and time for Apple and others to pick up the pace beyond the epsilons and deltas of incremental upgrades and move along to the next generation.

Oh, and one more thing -- that hasn't become obsoleteURLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:

The Northern Spy Home Page:
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