Written in early 1997.


Computers have already taken a major role as an information resource today. Computer technologies such as hypertext and the Internet remove the geographical constrains of print media and allow for a new method of distributing and reading documents. Books will always be affordable, concrete sources of information, but the next ten years will bring computers that are faster to access, as convenient to use, and that hold more information than books.

One of the most important advantages of the computer over print media is hypertext. Hypertext binds related documents together on a computer or network. With hypertext, highlighted text in a document represents a reference to another document. When the reader selects highlighted words with his mouse, the computer displays the referenced document. These "hot links" add an interactive dimension to the text. They work much like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series, in which the reader makes decisions throughout the book, turning to a certain page based on his choice of action. Catering to America’s short attention span, an extensive hypertext document allows the reader to read in a stream-of-consciousness style, with complete control over the topic.

When the concept of hypertext is applied to the Internet, the reader is still following his interests, but on a global computer network. The geographical location of a document is no longer relevant: the reader may browse documents archived in Canada, Switzerland, or Australia that are thematically linked together with hypertext. Networked hypertext also has an intrinsic ability to weed out noise through natural selection: the author of a document chooses which references are desirable for their reader.

Researchers will benefit from networked hypertext, as they must often travel to distant libraries for information. With the Internet, one piece of information is accessible from millions of computers around the world. A researcher may need to travel no further than her computer to find a document in a virtual library 3,000 miles away. As the Internet continues to grow, those doing research will have a greater advantage by acquiring Internet connectivity than by searching far and wide for books.

Information on the Internet is easily accessible, but it is extremely transient. A document on the Internet can be copied, changed, or deleted forever very easily, while a book cannot be revised without reprinting and rebinding a new copy. On the Internet, one person’s document can be altered and republished by another, and older revisions of documents are rarely saved. This brings up questions of copyright law, which is a great deal harder to enforce on the global Internet than with print media.

In twenty years, print media may not be able to keep up with the exponential growth of information. Because the density of information on a computer is far greater than that of a book, the Internet already holds more data than any physical library. A typical computer hard drive can hold around 2,000 novels—and a survey by Network Wizards (http://www.nw.com) estimates that there are over 3,000,000 computers housing information on the Internet today. In addition to their seemingly unlimited storage capacity, computers also provide much faster access to information. For example, looking up words in a dictionary might take a few minutes while computers can give the definition for any word, and pronounce it for you, immediately. The computer’s speed and space will make it a necessity technology as we move into a new millennium.

The future will bring even greater advantages to the computer over the book. Soon, computers will have screens that are crisper and more comfortable to view than a printed book. Currently, a computer screen has around 72 dots per square inch (dpi), while a laser-printed piece of paper is around 500 to 600 dpi. Future technology by companies such as Sony and Xerox will produce 600 dpi computer screens. With this technology, computer screens will no longer strain the eyes, and it will become feasible—even desirable—to read an entire novel on a computer screen. Technology will soon produce a computer that is as compact, durable, and comfortable to read as a book but that could contain thousands of books in electronic form.

Today, however, there are still some disadvantages to using the computer in place of the book. A good computer costs five thousand dollars, while a good paperback costs only five dollars. Many people cannot afford a computer and do not even have access to one. The Internet is an expensive service in most areas of the world, and there are monthly charges for it beyond the price of the computer. Though computers will be less expensive in the future, they will always cost considerably more than a book.

A book has much greater authority than information conveyed by a computer. By the time a book goes to press, it has been through the hands of the author, publisher, designer, and the editor. Information on the computer does not necessarily go through such a rigorous selection process. With very little effort, anyone can publish a document on the Internet; anyone can be an author. As a result, there tends to be a lower signal-to-noise ratio on the Internet.

Computers will never completely supplant books, but we may soon rely on them more than print media. Computers will meet our needs for information storage and distribution, and will be a convenient way to hold more information in less space than today’s book.

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Thanks to Project Gutenburg for the clip art at the top of this page.