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Print: a road kill on the information superhighway?

In the frenzy to get wired, has that old and humble form of communication that we know as the printed page become obsolete, a casualty of progress, a road kill flattened and shoved in the ditch by the juggernaut computer? Absolutely not, according to several industry experts and critics of the information age interviewed here. They point out that print remains a growth industry, a medium whose value should not be overlooked by communicators now or in the future.

Rumors of print's death have been greatly exaggerated

"I think print is going to be much longer lived than ... all these folks who are taking off into the upper atmosphere ... believe," says John Buschman, assistant professor at Rider College Library in Lawrenceville, N.J., a noted critic of electronic media.

Statistics from the printing industry seem to support his belief.

Ron Davis, chief economist for the nonprofit association Printing Industries of America in Alexandria, Va., says an increasing demand for information, coupled with production economies achieved by desktop publishing and other new technologies, has brought a boom to the print industry.

Davis says the rising demand for marketing and promotional materials, magazines, catalogs, directories and other printed pieces has increased the volume of the U.S. print industry to $80 billion annually.

The volume of commercial printing also is growing worldwide, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Figures from the United Nations and industry sources indicate that in the European Community the amount of newsprint and other paper sold for printing increased significantly from 1988 to 1991. Between 1977 and 1990, the number of book titles published in the EC jumped from 196,410 to 262,200. The volume of direct mail in France and the U.K. doubled between 1983 and 1991.

A rosy prognosis for print's immediate future

Print may not be dead yet, but isn't competition from electronic media driving it to an early grave? The answer is no, according to Jon Berger, electronic publishing consultant for William Byrd Press in Richmond, Va. He says it will take five to 10 years for electronic media to catch up with print's volume, and another 15 to 20 years for electronic media to become more widespread than print.

And, Berger points out, print remains an even more viable alternative in some parts of the world than in the U.S. and other economically developed countries. "Certainly in Third World countries ... and in societies that have not embraced the technology as much, the best way to get information to people will still be to put it in their hands," he says.

Is print immortal?

In fact, print might be virtually immortal.

"I don't think print will ever be obsolete," says Davis. "The futurists we use out at SRI International ... think that ... just about as far out as you can see, print will be, not the dominant medium that it is today, but very much a viable medium." In particular, Davis foresees long-term futures for printed product wrappers and labels, signage and materials used by salespeople in their direct interaction with other consumers.

Berger adds: "There's still going to be a need for some mass-produced products for distribution. You can't leave a digital product on a car as a flyer. You can't put up a poster with digital products."

The virtues of print

Whether or not print has a place in eternity as the medium of choice for candy wrappers and hand bills, another questions looms: Should print make way for electronics as the dominant communication medium? Some believe that print has advantages over electronic media that are often overlooked in the hyperbole about the information superhighway.

Summing up some of the practical advantages of the printed page, Berger says: "It's portable .... It's a fantastic way to deliver the content. It's much more widespread and [can be put] in the hands of every user. Every computer-illiterate person in the world who can read can still access that information."

Society has an infrastructure built to support print communication, one that has been created with an immeasurable investment of mental, physical and monetary capital. With some degree of certainty and cost-effectiveness, organizational communicators can rely on this infrastructure to provide:

* a method of production via printing presses and, increasingly, high-resolution photocopiers and laser printers;

* a method of delivery via government postal services and private courier services such as Federal Express.

* a market of consumers who prefer print, who can read print, and who can afford print.

Elaborating on this last point, Berger says: "Not that many people own computers. I think 55 percent of [U.S.] households have them. Of those, only a third have modems .... It's not enough for a company to get its message out only digitally because it's not reaching a big enough market."

A deeper look at the value of print

Another advantage of print is the sheer volume of information already stored in this medium, points out Theodore Roszak, professor of history at California State University, Hayward, an expert on technology's effect upon society. He questions whether society will ever have the resources to scan or keystroke in all the material now residing on printed pages throughout the world.

Further, he warns that electronic media might not be all they are cracked up to be as reliable repositories for information. "Industries are rushing to embed crucial data -- about banking, insurance, etc. -- in a format that is highly perishable .... We should pay close attention to the liabilities of storing data in a black hole," he says.

One problem with electronic media is material degradation. Roszak says CD-ROM disks, for instance, might not reliably last more than 20 years. Another problem is that accessing electronically archived material is sometimes made difficult by changes in hardware and software compatibility over time, resulting in what Roszak calls "electronic Alzheimer's." Keeping an institutional memory alive electronically can also be very expensive. "As we speak, the most durable kind of information resource is print on paper .... You can reprint on paper much more readily and cheaply," says Roszak.

The communication problems associated with technical compatibility, however, go beyond this one concern. Consider how complicated the process of communicating has become in the electronic age. Among organizational communicators there is a wide disparity in terms of hardware and software. Even a difference in the version numbers of a software package can prevent communicators from sharing electronic files.

Considering communicators' compatibility differences with electronic-media distributors and consumers, you might reasonably wonder whether it would not be a lot easier just to use a printed piece.

Another advantage of print is that the skills involved with this medium can be learned and mastered. Although the print industry is always changing, the essentials remain the same, and an enormous amount of expertise has been built up around the printing process -- editorial, design, production, advertising and distribution knowledge. In contrast, staying up to date with electronic media seems to be an ever more demanding chore. As technology, changes, communicators who take this route must reconcile themselves to spending more and more time dealing, not with messages themselves, but with the media.

"There's a state of flux with regard to access to information," says Roszak. "Unless you apply yourself to it, you can't keep track of how things are changing and how you can access it .... It's as if every time I went to the library, they had changed the card catalog, or even the alphabet."

What we stand to lose

For years, even computer enthusiasts have warned of the danger of an information glut caused by computers -- a volume of information which simply overwhelms its human users.

But electronic media may pose an even greater danger. Some critics warn computers have exaggerated the importance of information itself, with negative consequences.

"Computers make it easy to convert facts into statistics and to translate problems into equations. And whereas this can be useful (as when the process reveals a pattern that would otherwise go unnoticed), it is divisionary and dangerous when applied indiscriminately to human affairs," wrote Neil Postman in his 1992 book, "Technopoly."

Postman, chair of the department of communication arts at New York University, went on to write: "The computer argues ... that the most serious problems confronting us at both personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable. I would argue that this is, on the face of it, nonsense." He wrote that nuclear catastrophe, starvation, crime and other problems do not occur because of inadequate information, adding: "Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication and vast quantity of information have nothing whatever to do with any of these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them."

Buschman and Roszak say that in some ways books can enrich our thinking much better than electronic media.

Books, unlike computers, are not simply repositories of information, says Buschman. "A book is an attempt to bring some sort of holistic view to a problem, be it social, scientific, technical, whatever," he says. "It's the antithesis of the electronic information approach where you're really after a ... slice that you're going to search for by a key word and ignore the context and forget related items because they don't match the key word or subject parameters."

He adds: "You're given these little facts in the paradigm we're developing. And context and meaning and situation and explanation are really at the heart of what we think of in terms of knowledge and wisdom. Facts don't speak for themselves -- that's a fallacy."

In effect, one of the great selling points of electronic media -- the interactivity that allows users to ferret out facts of particular interest from a vast collection of databases, can be a weakness. In effect, users don blinders so all they find is what they want to find, rather than remaining open to a broader context of learning.

Why communicators should care

Why should any of this matter to the organizational communicator? First, organizational communicators rely increasingly on electronic media to send messages to their audiences. Although a hypertext annual report may give readers the chance to zoom in on the one piece of financial data they are looking for, will it be able to induce them to take the time to become acquainted with the company's large picture -- its mission, its commitment to quality, its reputation and culture? In other words, is an emphasis on quick fixes of information detrimental to the process of building deeper, long-term relationships?

Second, organizational communicators are relying on electronic media to receive messages from the outside world. Again, too much emphasis on facts, rather than intuition or relationships or common sense, can put organizations at a disadvantage. "Business is involved in more than just instrumental activities," says Buschman. "They have to feel out markets. They have to go with contextual sorts of information; they have to know about other cultures .... I would caution against businesses falling in love with this mode of communication, this mode of information."

The psychic toll gate

The information superhighway might even come equipped with a kind of psychic toll gate -- the price for admission being a diminution of our own thinking abilities.

Buschman makes a comparison between the role of TVs and computers when it comes to taking a toll on our minds. "Television is a way of knowing too, but I'm not sure the look of television, the literacy of television, is an answer to our problems," he says.

In his book, "The Cult of Information," Roszak writes: "... if we diminish the importance of [print] literacy, we ... cheapen the art of thinking -- perhaps to the point that we finally will believe that what data-processing machines do is indeed 'thinking.' If such a consensus ever comes to dominate our culture, it will not be because the machines have become our equals, but because we have become theirs."

In our rush to join the information age, we might just be adapting ourselves to the technology, rather than making the technology adapt itself to us.

The end of the road

Technology enthusiasts might claim that eventually technology itself will straighten out all the kinks on the information superhighway.

Improved resolution of monitors will make graphics better. Computers will continue to shrink, becoming more portable. Programs will become increasingly "user-friendly," and universal interfaces will solve compatibility problems. Prices will drop, the market will grow and the world will be linked by a network of TVs, telephones and computers. Media will become more durable. Software will allow people to sort through the data glut. Conversely, full-text versions of books and other materials will function with the same holism of their printed predecessors.

Yet, when and if that day comes, a dispassionate observer could well ask whether society's massive investment in electronic media was worth it, considering that print already possesses so many of their virtues -- utility, universality, adaptability and simplicity. Instead of propelling us into the future, isn't the information superhighway really just bringing us back full circle to where we already are?

Before you fire your printer, recycle your library card, cancel your magazine subscriptions, and burn your books, think again. Computers won't necessarily put you on the fast track to success, and the printed page, far from being a road kill, remains alive and kicking. So don't leave print behind in the dust. Offer it a ride; it may help you get where you want to go.


-- A case study --

To find out the volume of the U.S. print industry and whether it's growing or shrinking. I turned to CompuServe's electronic Reference Library.

First, I tried Business Database Plus. Searching its business and trade journals section for information on " print and volume and growth," I came up with a list of 1,630 articles -- too many to search through. A sampling of titles revealed that many were no more relevant than "A Guide to Mutual Fund Databases" or "Deodorants in Europe." My search in the newsletters section using different key words resulted in 22,806 articles. After narrowing ny search several times, I still netted 94 articles, so I gave up. COST: U.S. $7.75 plus phone charges. TIME: 25 minutes.

Second, I tried IQuest. My first search yielded 19 articles titles, none of which seemed relevant to my search. So I revised my search wording slightly, and came up with nothing. Humbled, I asked for online help. Following my interlocutor's advice. I found a total of three references, all too old to be useful, the newest coming from 1988. TIME: 45 minutes. COST: $29 plus phone charges.

Fortunately, I already had found the information I needed earlier. I simply thumbed through the print version of "National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States" in our office. In the subject index, I found a category called "Printing." From there, I found an organization called Printing Industries of America. It took no more than a minute on the phone from that organization, TIME: Five minutes. COST: $0.13 in phone charges.


We may not be living in anything that can sensibly be cared an information economy, a term that has always had more journalistic glitter than social substance; but it is the case that, within our economy, an information industry of sizeable proportions has grown up over the past 20 years. It is made up not only of the computer and electronic firms ... but of ambitious new service companies .... These enterprises, in turn, have helped create a thrusting new profession of computer system specialists whose assignment is to brainstorm more and more applications for information technology and to sell those applications to every business on the scene. The cult of information is nowhere more deeply entrenched than on this bustling, highly competitive, entrepreneurial frontier, where many of the brightest young minds of the time are hard at work merchandising the promise of the computer, cleverly maneuvering its services into every slightest need that an eager, often gullible business community might present.

Kyle Heger is managing editor, Communication World.
COPYRIGHT 1994 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; impact of information superhighway on printing industry
Author:Heger, Kyle
Publication:Communication World
Date:Oct 1, 1994
Previous Article:Publications adapt to leaner, meaner nineties.
Next Article:Why worry about technology? ...Because the competition does!

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