Austin Meredith: The Dying Dictionary

Here’s something for your IC topic “The End of Work.” Not only has the typesetting industry been eliminated by computers (see IC18 p. 6 Ed.), but the reference-book industry has been eliminated. A single twelve-inch laserdisk will now store two gigabytes of information. That is to say that, if there existed forty different encyclopedias the size of the Britannica, they could all be put on one disk the size of a long-playing record and sold for one or two or three hundred dollars. The Jackintosh computer selling for $800 undiscounted, plus a $500 laserdisk reader, plus perhaps a $300 printer, plus a few laserdisks in a drawer at a couple hundred a pop, is all the equipment you need. With this hardware, you can find all references to a given word in three seconds, and display them on your screen or print them on your printer in their full context.

Therefore there will be no more work on concordances. The last concorfdance has already been published. There will be no further need for encyclopedias to be in book form, nor in fact will there be any heed for encyclopedias to be organized alphabetically or divided off by topic. A reference “book” can now consist of a stream-of-consciousness recital, if you like, because it can be accessed eleven ways from Sunday according to the user’s need and interest.

I understand they are coming up with a new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This activity is obsolete and entirely unnecessary, since the texts from which these examples of historical usage are extracted may now be captured, in full, on one laserdisk. Why would anyone want to look at extracts of word use, out of context, when in three seconds one can see all original usages on one’s screen in their full original contexts?

There is no more need for library buildings in every town or at every university. After scanning one copy of each book on an optical character recognition machine, we may give the books away and convert the stack space into offices for professors or study halls for students. All any nation will need is a couple of book repositories in caves – a couple, in case there is an accident at one or the other – for use in the off chance that an existing book needs to be put back onto an optical character recognition machine and re-scanned onto laserdisk.

Nobody has realized this yet, because it takes a while to see such things, but very shortly after the typesetting industry has been eliminated, the scholarly caste will be losing all interest in printed books. Printed books are too difficult to carry around in bulk, and much too difficult to search, to be of any real use for scholarship! Printed books are for people who are content to refer to one book at a time, and process it serially from one cover through to the other, as a maggot might make its way through a loaf of bread. In the very near future, scholars will rely exclusively on computers and laserdisks, or be dismissed as not serious scholars. In the very near future, no-one but an ignoramus will be willing to process information serially, because there is so much,information to be mastered, and because it is so much more convenient to head straight for the items of information one needs.

Virtually every book published in Europe and America in the past five years is already on half-inch computer tape, waiting to be downloaded onto laserdisk. The only question to be resolved is the non-technological question of how much money needs to be paid to whom, for legal permission to do this. Existing optical character recognition machines cannot read just any typeface in just any older book, but they can read the bulk of the typefaces and convert them into computer-searchable character codes. Those books which cannot now he scanned into searchable code, such as “sans serif” typefaces, longhand manuscripts, and Chinese/Arabic/etc. scripts, can be scanned in a picture mode which cannot yet be searched. The computer chips for optical character recognition of any alphanumeric character in any script, and optical character recognition machines incorporating these chips, are now in preparation, so that the remainder of the existing texts can easily be available on laserdisk in searchable form within two or three years.

Which is not to say that your librarian will be out of a job, for there will be much need for intelligent and dedicated people. Computer novices will need help, in learning how to construct the most appropriately heuristic Boolean search sequences on their computers.

(Editor’s Note: Since this paper was received a company named Bible Research Systems has produced the King James and New International versions of the Bible on computer disks, together with programmes that will cross-reference, search, display and print out as required. Personal Computer World Jan 86 p. 123)

– – –

JUST BECAUSE you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

from Ideological Commentary 21, November 1985.