All the Information in the World

In my surfing a few days ago I came across, as I’m sure you did, the news that after 244 years Encyclopedia Britannica was giving up on its print edition.

We never had Britannica in our house – it was too expensive. We had a cheaper, more “modern” looking set… I don’t remember the brand. Of course, my schools – every school (I went to… I think twelve different ones)  library had a set of Britannicas. I wasn’t a big fan of them; they seemed too stuffy for my taste. I loved the top-line World Book (which looks like it is still in print) – I remember when I discovered the transparent acetate pages that showed the human anatomy in several layers. It seemed like amazing information luxury to me.

Most kids used the various encyclopedias to plagiarize their school reports, usually cribbing the short paragraphs out verbatim.  I, on the other hand, used to read encyclopedias cover to cover, from AA, through Z, and on to devour each annual update and addendum. I loved reading them. I’d read my books at home, then I devour the ones in the school library, then on to the history sets (I loved these because they were in chronological order) and finally the long shelves of Time/Life educational books.

Sitting here, writing this, I remember the hours spent turning the pages, the slight fungus odor of the old paper, the weight of the editions as they came off the shelf, the nasty paper cuts – I remember following the footnotes and then the memory of getting to the same article in alphabetical order. I retained a surprisingly large amount of information – not sure how much good it did me. The tomes were good on dry facts but not so much on wisdom.

I am not overwhelmed with wistful nostalgic sadness, though. Plenty of people are full of woe that an age has passed and they lament the disappearance of such a totem of their youth. My thoughts run in a different direction. What I think about is what a kid that, in a vain attempt to satisfy his unquenchable curiosity, was forced to read encyclopedias cover to cover, volume to volume, could have done if he had been born a few decades later and had access to the internet. It would have been like drinking from a fire hydrant.

I’ve been seeing headlines like, “Encyclopedia Britannica killed by Wikipedia!” That is not true at all – Wikipedia is a great thing, but sometimes you want information that wasn’t written by nineteen-year-olds. There will always be a place for the verified truth.

“This has nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google,” Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. President Jorge Cauz said. “This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people.”

The top year for the printed encyclopedia was 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold, Cauz said. That number fell to 40,000 just six years later in 1996, he said. The company started exploring digital publishing in the 1970s. The first CD-ROM edition was published in 1989 and a version went online in 1994.

The final hardcover encyclopedia set weighs 129 pounds and is available for sale at Britannica’s website for $1,395.

An entire set costs more than an iPad. A low-end tablet is half that.  There is an iOS app which is free, but has a $1.99 a month subscription for unlimited content.

If you went back in time to, say 1969, and said, “Hey, for half the cost of that shelf full of heavy books, I’m going to give you a little book or pad, about the size of a magazine, that you can take anywhere with you and when you touch it, the content you are looking for will appear on it, more or less instantly. It will be in full color, with sound and full-motion television, when appropriate. You’ll have to throw the old, paper ones away, though. To keep it updated you’ll have to pay two dollars a month. Oh, and if you need a break you can play Angry Birds on it too.”

What do you think the reaction would have been? It makes me think of Arthur C Clarke’s third law- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A fully loaded iPad would have looked like magic in 1969. And that’s 1969! I remember 1969. I was twelve. I was reading encyclopedias in 1969.

I wish I had had an iPad.

This is me in 1969 (or so). I look like a kid that read encyclopedias cover to cover.

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