Technofile

By Kohn, Mark | The Independent (London, England), March 31, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Technofile


Kohn, Mark, The Independent (London, England)


N Welcome to my site, as they say on the Web. Even four-letter words have acquired peculiar new usages in the new electronic media. The uninitiated might be forgiven for thinking that to talk about "hypermedia", you must either have your head in the clouds or your nose buried in a root directory, whatever that may be. There seems to be nothing between the souffle of nebulous prophecy and the indigestible grit of engineering talk. To start at what ought to be the beginning, then, here's a basic principle in plain English: any book you usually enter via the index, rather than the first page, is better on disk than on paper.

Purists on both sides will recoil. Partisans of print may point out that it often takes longer to start up a computer and load a file than to get the dead tree version off the shelf and flick through it. Hypermedia visionaries regard electronic versions of books as no more than a first step on the road to new media genres which we cannot yet even imagine.

Both are right, up to a point. There will always be circumstances in which paper books are more convenient. They will usually be more enjoyable to own and handle, too. But when it comes to work rather than pleasure, people will appreciate the advantages of translating books into digital media. Digitisation frees a text from its covers. Readers can put it to fresh uses; publishers can make fresh profits from it.

New forms certainly will emerge. Andreas Whittam-Smith, who founded the Independent and now fronts Notting Hill, an electronic publishing company, draws a comparison with early railway coaches, whose design was based on that of horse-drawn carriages. He is right that the vehicles of the new media will evolve beyond their prototypes, but the analogy implies that the prototypes will be completely superseded.

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