Whither Literacy?

C&EN has been engaged in a major project with the ACS Washington IT Department for more than three years to create a workflow that renders all C&EN content in XML—extensible markup language—to facilitate delivery of the content electronically over the Internet and via mobile devices. That Digital Workflow Project has now morphed into the C&EN Production Automation Program, a set of four projects that will revolutionize the delivery of C&EN to its readers.

One reason the workflow project has been so complex and drawn out is that C&EN is a weekly magazine with three delivery modes—print, electronic, and C&EN Online—which we produce in parallel. We do multiple types of editing simultaneously, and the content you read isn’t final until the pages of the print edition are complete. Our workflow is inherently complicated.

Another reason, however, is the complexity of the typography and design of a magazine that covers the chemistry enterprise. Of necessity, C&EN contains many “special characters”—Greek letters and mathematical symbols, for example, to express chemical names and concepts. We have also chosen to retain many elements of classical typography, with the names of journals and the Latin names of species italicized, to take another example.

Because I have been in the magazine business for more than 30 years, I am sensitive to typography. Have you noticed how some of the elements of typography I noted above have completely disappeared from newspapers and most magazines? You won’t see Science magazine or Escherichia coli in italics in the New York Times. You almost certainly will not see α-interferon, either. I call this the tyranny of XML; it is a protocol that is powerful for the electronic delivery of content, but it is wreaking havoc on print.

I know, print’s days are numbered, so who cares? Well, we offer the electronic edition of C&EN—an electronic facsimile of the print edition—and only 13% of ACS members living in North America opted in 2010 to take it over the print edition. It appears that many ACS members still prefer to read C&EN on paper.

Anyway, the lead article in the March 2 “Science Times” section of the New York Times was a fascinating story entitled “Striving to Map the Shape-Shifting Net.” The focus of the story was the evolving nature of the channels over which information flows on the Internet. That volume is enormous. The article quotes Cisco Systems’ Doug Webster, who said, “When we started releasing data publicly, we measured it in petabytes of traffic. Then a couple of years ago we had to start measuring them in zettabytes, and now we are measuring them in what we call yottabytes.” The article defines a petabyte as 1 million gigabytes; a zettabye is 1 million petabytes; a yottabyte, 1,000 zettabytes.

A statement that caught my eye was that Cisco “estimates that video will account for 90% of all Internet traffic by 2013.”

I know, video requires much greater bandwidth to transmit than text, so the statement doesn’t mean that 90% of the content will be video. Still, what does this say about the evolution of how we exchange information? Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press using movable type in 1439 or so. Widespread literacy has been a trait of civilized humans for only 500 years. Speech and storytelling are hard-wired in our genes. We are called Homo sapiens, but would anyone know we could think if we didn’t talk about our thoughts? Reading words on paper or a computer screen is most definitely not part of our basic nature.

Is it possible that reading words is a transient phase in our evolution as storytellers and information exchangers? That if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million? That in the future, people will choose to receive the information they need by listening and/or watching rather than by reading?

I have no idea what the answers are to these questions. I do know from the C&EN workflow project that the Internet is not friendly to words rendered gracefully, the way Gutenberg and his printing descendants rendered them.

Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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2 Comments

  1. I think one of the other problems with trying to publish a magazine online is that the “natural” publishing rate is different. If you’re not actually having something printed, then there is less need to hold on to your stories until you can publish them all together – you may as well post them when they’re finished, especially if they’re timely. I think that’s why the blog format, which makes this easy, is so successful.

    As to reading going away – I doubt that! It has advantages over listening or watching – for example it’s easy to set your own pace in a nonfiction book you are trying to learn from. But I do suspect that as books go digital we will see text more-often augmented with appropriate pictures and videos, and maybe even games and applets and the like.

  2. Text go away, superseded by video? No – only to the illiterate. I can read much faster than anyone can speak, especially at a sustained pace for long periods. Video does most certainly have advantages, though. Try to describe, in words (and be precise and unambiguous) the details of what occurs in coating a tablet, or the characteristics and behaviour of the “bead” at a coating head in web coating – a video (especially one with slow motion capability) is worth more than 100 pages, including illustrations!