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Paper vs digital: Why you can't flog a dead encyclopaedia

We're living through the closing chapter of paper and the printed word - and we shouldn't mourn their passing.

The cost of online access to everything is zero compared with the expense of limited access to paper. Photo: Shutterstock

Written in London and dispatched a day later from a coffee shop via a free wi-fi service at 20Mbps in Woodbridge, Suffolk.

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has come to the end of the road. It's going out of print to be replaced by a $70 annual-subscription online service. The last paper version, which weighed in at 129lb, consisted of 32 volumes and cost $1,400. It was significantly out of date before it reached the printing presses, let alone the bookshelves.

An empire that once commanded thousands of salespeople worldwide was brought down by the web. In its entire history it only managed to reach about seven million bookshelves, providing status, decoration and thermal insulation for homes in winter.

No other book series in the history of mankind has presented such knowledge and yet been so underused.

I remember the salesman calling at our house in the 1950s with sample tomes, engaging my parents in a lengthy discussion rich is superlatives. All questions of price were studiously skirted until the last minute, when my parents suddenly realised the product was way out of their financial league.

My father was a manual worker. We were a poor, and books were not a defining feature of our home. But we had a few friends who we thought of as being rich, and they had books on show in polished wooden bookcases, with the Encyclopaedia Britannica taking pride of place, above the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Because they were revered and expensive, I was never allowed to touch let alone peer inside family friends' encyclopaedia volumes. Like religious icons, they looked down on us, shiny and untouched, to be dusted down from time to time and venerated by those who recognised their true significance.

I often wondered if children anywhere were allowed to use these volumes. I assumed not. Perhaps only with parental guidance was a tome lifted down and the pages ceremoniously opened to reveal the precious text. Curiously, my school never owned a copy, but the teachers were fond of citing facts and figures from its pages as if they were holy writ.

No one worried about my home not having sufficient reading material. I was packed off to the public library every weekend, and I would regularly lose a few hours surfing the shelves, to return home with a good read.

How the world has changed. Today, I hear people talking about the digital divide, the information haves and have-nots. By the standards of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s these things are illusions.

Today, the cost of digital access to everything compared with the limited access to paper is zero. And the only reason people are offline is through choice and ignorance.

In the UK the public libraries are being phased out as being too expensive to support through taxation. At the same time the number of PCs, laptops, iPads, tablets e-readers and smartphones per household is among the highest on the planet.

You don't have to be a genius to see where this is going. The world of passive paper is dying. It is extremely uneconomic and cannot support a seven-billion population.

However, every time anyone puts forward such a view, the paper protection league leaps to the defence of an information-deprived past. The good news is the protesters grow fewer in number year on year through natural causes, or by seeing the light - perhaps from a LCD display.

The digital ratchet cranks on another notch. There'll be no going back - not even after 244 years.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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