Sunday, March 25, 2012

Going Digital

Encyclopedia Britannica recently announced they were ceasing publication of their long-revered, multi-volumed, term paper plagiarizing aide. I know, because we had a set in my house when I was growing up, and, just by changing a few words, the guilt of copying disappeared. My wife and I bought a set when our daughter was starting to write school reports, and we even got the annual updates, which provided crucial revisions to existing articles, and new entries for important events from that year. It was sad to read about New Kids on the Block breaking up.

The Britannica will be available exclusively online, through their website, at a cost to subscribers of $70 per year. Apparently, management at this institution of education and knowledge hasn't heard of Wikipedia, the online, and free, encyclopedia. Some people scoff at Wikipedia because of its open source nature, allowing anybody to update articles, putting its credibility in question. However they do a very good job of policing any inaccuracies. A while ago, in order to test their vigilance, I added my name to the list of British Prime Ministers. Right there between Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell where I was confident it wouldn't be noticed. But sure enough, it was almost immediately deleted, and my account was frozen. I use my wife's computer to do research for my books now.

This got me to thinking about the digitalization of everything, specifically music and books. Over the years I have amassed fairly large collections of records and books - music and reading being two of my passions. When I was young I bought many 45s (for you younger readers, under 40, these are the small records with one song on each side. It had a big hole in the middle and spun on the turntable at 45 revolutions per minute). You would buy the record for the hit, and on the other side was some piece-of-crap music that you never listened to. Then, because of The Beatles, I started buying albums. The Beatles raised the bar and the throwaway songs rapidly became non-existent, at least with bands that were serious about their music.

The LPs, or long-playing records, were the main way people bought music for a long time. A few alternatives came along over the years. Cassette tapes made a little dent in LP sales. Then somebody had a musical brain fart and gave us the 8-track tape. I sincerely hope the person who developed this monstrosity of a music delivery system has been exiled somewhere and is forced to listen to a continuous loop of Pat Boone music, along with his evil spawn Debby Boone. The tapes never changed tracks properly and you would hear one track in one speaker and another track, playing backwards, in the other. Then they would cut a longer song somewhere in the middle to continue it on the next track, due to space limitations.

In the late '80s, the LP had met its match with the introduction of the CD. The music sounded great and in the early days, when an album was released in both formats, the CD offered bonus tracks that the LP didn't have. The beginning of the end of the LP had come. The only drawback of the CD, for me, was the information that came with it: lyrics, liner notes, and other inserts that were found in the album sleeves were now miniaturized to fit in the CD case. It had most of the same information, but I had to do a lot of squinting to read it.

Today, the CD is about to die. Music is all digitized and we are back to buying individual songs (singles) the way we did with the 45s. But there's nothing to hold. We can download them on our computers, iPods, iPhones, iPads, iEverythings, and have thousands of songs in the palm of our hands. I had an iPod Nano that I got about seven years ago which was recently recalled by Apple because of some potential problems with the battery. I sent it to them to get a free replacement. When I received my package in the mail from them I had to call Apple to say they had sent me a battery by mistake and not the iPod. I was corrected by the Apple rep who told me the new model was much smaller. Not only was it smaller, but it had twice the capacity of the old one. The thing is so small it's a potential choking hazard for children. But now, with everything digitized and downloaded, there are no accompanying lyric sheets or liner notes. I miss them.

Closer to home, the same thing is happening to books. E-books are rapidly replacing paperbacks and hard cover books. My wife and I both have Kindles and quickly got used to them. We can carry our entire library wherever we go. A while ago, Amazon announced they were selling more e-books for their Kindle than paperbacks and hard covers combined. As an author, I know my books, (Protecting the Cittern and The Ibex Trophy, in case you forgot), have to be available in all formats, and the reality is that I do sell more e-books than regular books on line. At book signings I always used to stress that a benefit of getting the book directly from me was that it would be signed by the author. As of last week that argument has been taken away from me because I now can sign a book on Kindle. Digitally. You can look it up in Encyclopedia Britannica or Wikipedia.