Publishing gets ready for big changes


AUSTIN, Texas -- Is publishing going the way of the dinosaurs? Or will it be revitalized through technological wizardry, like the reconstituted beasts of "Jurassic Park"?

These were the questions but there were no clear answers as publishers, editors, writers and leaders in technology gathered at the University of Texas Nov. 12-13 to ponder "The State and Fate of Publishing." The symposium was sponsored by UT's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in honor of Fleur Cowles, the founder of Flair magazine.

Those participating ranged from futurists who exult in the possibilities offered by technological innovation to fogies who seem to long for the days of quill pen and parchment. Attendees could select from a menu of scenarios ranging from bleak to glowing.

One thing everyone seemed to agree on, however, was that something revolutionary is happening in the world of books, newspapers and magazines. Whatever it is is as epoch-making as the developments of Johannes Gutenberg -- a name that kept popping up throughout the two-day conference.

A typical comment was that of Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer and diplomat, who summed up the symposium: "We might be on the threshold of a big change, one as big as the Gutenberg change which permitted the rise of the modern novel and the beginning of modern education."

Representing the cutting edge of the new revolution was Jerome S. Rubin, the developer of the LEXIS and NEXIS computer-assisted research services and the head of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. he described some of the projects of his lab -- technological gee-whizzery that would make even Tom Clancy's jaw drop.

Mr. Rubin envisions a newspaper put together not by editors but by readers. A smart computer program in the home will print out a newspaper tailored to each reader's interests and needs. If four people live in the house, there will be four newspapers -- each different from the others.

Judging by Mr. Rubin's presentation, two of the hottest trends in computer design today are a striving for a sort of super-user-friendliness and the development of intelligent programs.

"For the computer to become universally acceptable, there have to be systems that can be used without any instruction at all; they must be trivially easy to use," he said.

His electronic newspaper compiler is an example of an intelligent program. The human tells the computer what kind of newspaper he or she wants, but that is only the beginning: The computer keeps track of what the human is reading, then reshapes the newspaper to fit changing interests.

Another futurist was Stuart Lynn of Washington, D.C., president of the Commission on Preservation and Access, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the nation's cultural and intellectual record. Fittingly, he read his presentation from the screen of a lap-top computer.

He surveyed new developments in communication such as on-line services, interactive television and CD-ROMs, but envisioned a sort of go-slow revolution that may have been heartening to some of his more conservative listeners.

Gutenberg didn't jolt his first readers, Mr. Lynn said; he tried to make his new books as comfortably similar to the old, hand-crafted books as possible. It was 30 to 40 years before book designers began to take full advantage of the possibilities of movable type with the introduction of fancy fonts and so on.

Mr. Lynn thinks that the new computer revolution will proceed along similar lines. The pace of innovation will be moderate; new developments will be offered as options rather than dictated as requirements.

Even the forward-looking Mr. Rubin warned that "cultural resistance" should not be underestimated. The ancient Babylonians introduced the seven-day week, he said, and it has been with us ever since, despite periodic attempts to change the scheme. Technology that simply is not wanted will not be accepted.

On the skeptical side of all this was Simon Jenkins, a columnist for and former editor of The Times of London. Traditional publishing of both books and newspapers is in great shape on his side of the Atlantic, he said, and it would be in America too, if the United States only had tough anti-monopoly policies.

He saw no need for a technological revolution. Indeed, he predicted that when the inventors are through inventing, we will still be reading pretty much the same books, newspapers and magazines we're reading now.

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