Goodbye to Gutenberg

By Ray Schultz

Sometimes we take progress for granted, without knowing its history. A half century ago, Newsweek published an article titled Goodbye to Gutenberg that all but predicted our own information age.

“At MIT, a research team grapples with the problems of developing a nation-wide computer network that will make every bit of knowledge—whether stored in old books or just obtained in a laboratory—instantly available,” Newsweek reported on Jan. 24, 1966.

It continued: “And an IBM scientific-literature device now serving NASA presages the day when a living-room photocopier linked to a computer instantly produces an individually selected group of stories and editorials from any publication the armchair reader wants to see.”

All this was highly unbelievable to many people. But Newsweek devoted several pages to the phenomenon.

“Pipe Dream: As the enthusiasts see it, the answer to (the information explosion) is a vast information network capable of storing, retrieving and moving all kinds of data at high speeds all over the country or even the world. Instead of having books, newspapers and magazines printed, publishers may some day pipe their materials into the system, which would then produce it on demand at high speed—or so the pipe dream goes.”

That wasn’t all. “Progress toward this dial-a-thought world has already been made at MIT by the INTREX (for information transfer experiments) staff. Under the direction of physicist Carl. F.J. Overhage, INTREX is setting up an experimental laboratory to test ways of giving a student instant access to information. Some of the possible tools contemplated include xerography, film projection and even telephone communication between computer and user.

Does anyone remember what the world was like 50 years ago, when LBJ was president and the Beatles were in their glory? If you needed to communicate with a colleague overseas, you sent an air-mail letter. Or, if it was urgent, you paid to send a telex. Computers existed, but few companies could afford them; those that dared to use them had to book off-site timeshares.

On most newspapers, reporters wrote their stories on typewriters, or called them in from a phone booth while a rewrite person typed them. Then an editor marked them up, and they were typeset by an expensive unionized linotype operator, sitting at a hot type machine, as I recall. Finally, they were proofed off a newsprint sheet, and the corrections were painstakingly (but not always accurately) made. All this took hours, and it was expensive. The pressure turned reporters, editors and makeup artists into dipsomaniacs.

But Newsweek reported that copy and manuscript editing could be turned into “an efficient, rapid procedure.” Indeed, copy typed into second-generation computers “will be hyphenated, justified and fit to a layout,” it went on. “Then each complete page will be presented to the editor in the form of a high-quality TV image of 500 or more lines to the inch. Using a light pencil (an electronic pointer capable of directing an image from one part of the screen to another) and keyboard, the editor rewrites and changes the order of paragraphs and the arrangement of stories on the page that will be stored in the computer memory. Such a system would eventually permit him to make up a page with any type, and set whole stories at the flick of a switch.”

This was no pipe dream, the magazine continued: “The first sale of such a computer system has already been made by IBM. The purchaser, Time Inc. (employing a high-speed printer instead of TV), will use it in its book division and three magazines. To be delivered late this year, the system will consist of two $350,000 IBM 360 computers each served by three 512,000-word auxiliary memories.

I’m sure that the people on Newsweek’s business side read this article very carefully. That said, I never saw even a weak version of this system in a publishing office until the 1980s. And it was a long slog from there to where we are today.

Still, visionaries saw it coming at some point. To return to Newsweek:

“Books and newspapers will no longer exist,” predicts Marshall McLuhan, the new savant of the new technology. Publishing will become an active serving of the human mind. Instead of a book, people will get a research package done to suit their own needs.”

Well, we’re not quite there yet. And do we want to be? The only way to read Anna Karenina is in print. But Newsweek got one thing right.

“It publishing and journalism do not buy automation, it seems, automation will buy them.”

Boy, did that turn out to be true.







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