The proliferation of culture

The Mother of All Invention – The Atlantic

Personalization in turn promoted disaggregation: deconstructing and rearranging conventional information units. My own eyes were opened by a fellow graduate student’s announcement in 1970 that he was annotating his own copies of journal articles for his files—a practice few had attempted in the days of malodorous wet-process copiers. Highlighters were introduced in 1962, shortly after the 914’s appearance. Copy shops in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other college towns began to bring corporate-grade machines to the masses for pennies a page, and individually selected anthologies soon displaced the paperbacks that professors had assigned for a few chapters.

I’ve always been fascinated by cheap used paperbacks that covered obscure academic subjects or offered “classic” texts. At times I greedily bought up as many as I could, feeling like I was secretly stealing a college-level education in subjects like history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, science, math, or literature. I occasionally wondered if there was some strange underground market for such books. But, since the 4″x7″ format was not typical of the books assigned when I took undergraduate and graduate classes, I didn’t really understand why there seemed to be so many on academic subjects. I did have Reclam paperbacks and 5″x8″ paperbacks assigned for classes, but still I thought they were something unusual. Now I think I must have been pretty dense not to realize that college students outside of my specializations created a huge demand for cheap editions of individual works as alternatives to textbooks.

The World Wide Web is built on some of the same information structures. There are individual works in the form of full-text ebooks, lots of articles on various subjects, searchable databases, and anonymous aggregators of information.

On this last subject, we should compare an aggregator like Wikipedia to a twentieth-century textbook. Lots of people in academia complain about Wikipedia’s faults, such as lack of expert accountability, poor editing, and susceptibility to bias and manipulation. Yet, these are also problems for textbooks, despite the long PR campaign by textbook publishers to convince gullible people that they are worth $50 to $200 apiece. The only real difference is that the worst Wikipedia article is still better than the worst textbook, because at least it has to point to its sources and it can be instantly revised or deleted; meanwhile, the highest quality textbooks are still better than the best Wikipedia article, because they are going to be well written by recognized authorities and well edited.

Hopefully, the availability of cheap or free Internet information sources like Wikipedia and Google Books will cull the bottom 75% of the textbook market. Likewise, I hope that cheap web publishing and cheap ebooks will eliminate 75% of the market for junk books. Most contemporary fiction, for example, should only be published as ephemeral electronic bits or printed one copy at a time. With regard to music I see it from the opposite point of view, since I hope that the electronic distribution of a wider range of musicians might destroy the ability of centralized media sources to create a vapid, soulless, inbred royal family of pop music stars. In fact, I think it will destroy “pop music” entirely, and hopefully that will bring down the parasitic corporate recording industry.

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