The most obvious epicenter of this shakeup is the information business. And it is particularly instructive to consider the fate of one of its most familiar architectural manifestations, the book shop. Where will we find twenty-first-century Pickwicks?
The problem with printed books, magazines, and newspapers-Gutenberg's gotcha-is distribution. Paper documents can be mass produced rapidly at centralized locations, but they must then be warehoused, transported, stocked at retail outlets, and eventually hand carried to wherever they will be opened and read. There are built and specially equipped places for each of these activities: the publisher's office, the printing plant, the warehouse, the bookstore, the newspaper kiosk, lounges and waiting rooms stocked with magazines, and the easy chair beside the fire. These places are distributed at appropriate locations within the urban fabric and play important roles in differentiating that fabric and the activities unfolding within it. Harvard Square would not be the same without Out of Town News and its diverse collection of bookstores.
Records and videos generate analogous places and spatial structures. The record store long ago took its place alongside the bookstore in downtown retail districts and shopping malls. Then, in the 1980s, video stores popped up everywhere-proliferating particularly in strips, shopping centers, and rural market centers, where they could easily be reached by car. Like the gas station and the fast-food outlet, video stores became a characteristic element of the suburban landscape.
When we separate information from its usual paper and plastic substrates, though, stockpiling and transporting physical products become unnecessary. Consider, for example, a venture announced by Blockbuster Entertainment (a large video-rental and record store chain) and IBM in May 1993. 4 The idea was to store recordings, in digital format, on a central server and to distribute them via a computer network to kiosks in record stores. There, customers could select recordings from a menu, download them to the kiosk, and copy them to CDs on the spot. Bookstores could work the same way, by downloading texts and rapidly laser-printing them. Through such point-of-sale production, the producers and wholesalers save on inventory, warehouse, and transportation costs, the retailers save on shelf space, and the customer potentially gets access to a much wider selection.
But inscription on to the substrate need not necessarily occur at this particular point along the information distribution chain. (Though, naturally enough, it is the point that most interests retailers.) Electronic, digital distribution might carry all the way to homes or other points of consumption. An alternative publishing strategy, then, is to download books and magazines from online databases to home laser printers (successors to the crude fax machines of the 1980s and 1990s) and to download recordings to home stereos, videos to home televisions, and newspapers to home computers. (This can be integrated with a recycling strategy; print on recycled paper and toss the printouts back into the recycling bin when their useful life is over.) Yet another strategy for text, music, or video on demand is simply to provide hundreds or thousands of simultaneously available digital channels, with each one repeatedly broadcasting specialized programs.
The Internet's Electronic Newsstand pioneered the new publishing pattern of downloading on demand when it opened in July 1993. 5 It provided online access to magazine articles-thus allowing customers to browse, as they might in a traditional newsstand-and also allowed convenient placement of subscription orders for print versions. An electronic bookstore and sections for business publications and newsletters were soon added. It was established with eight magazines; less than a year later the list had grown to eighty, and the service was being accessed forty thousand times per day from all over the world.
With changes in modes of information distribution come changes in acts of consumption-even in the familiar ritual of reading a newspaper. As I write this, the New York Times and the Boston Globe-in the form of large lumps of reprocessed cellulose -land with thumps on my Cambridge doorstep each morning and must eventually find their way to the recycling bin. The Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and many others show up as well, but silently and immaterially-on my computer. Instead of turning their pages, I use software that picks out the items I want to see; headlines become menu items to click. Or I can do keyword searches through databases of accumulated stories. It's a short step to the completely personalized newspaper produced by an interface agent that knows my interests and preferences, continually scans the incoming news stream to pick out items that match my interest profile, and displays them in whatever format I may happen to prefer. Even the ideas of a "daily paper" and a self-contained "story" are challenged; a newspaper can become an accumulating online database of news stories in which a current story is simply an entry point for tracing a topic back through previous stories.
By the mid-1990s a new pattern of information distribution was clearly emerging on the North American continent. Cable, telephone, and computer companies were scrambling to form alliances that would provide homes and workplaces with inexpensive network connections, processing hardware, and presentation software. In 1993, for example, Time Warner announced an ambitious test project to put inexpensive telecomputers in four thousand homes in Orlando, Florida, and the Videoway network in Montreal was already offering a commercially successful interactive television system. 6 Media biggie Rupert Murdoch began to buy into the Internet. 7 Publishers were starting to evolve into organizations that pumped bits into the Net-the loading docks of the information superhighway system. The growing expectation was that bookstores, record stores, video stores, lending libraries, and newspaper kiosks in urban centers would largely be replaced by millions of inconspicuous, widely distributed electronic boxes at the ends of cables.
Gutenberg's revolution created places where printed information was concentrated and controlled. But electronic, digital information has a radically different spatial logic. It is immaterial rather than bonded to paper or plastic sheets, it is almost instantaneously transferable to any place that has a network connection or is within range of a bit radiation source, and it is potentially reprocessable at any reception point-thus shifting much of the editorial and formatting work and responsibility from the producer's centralized plant to the consumer's personal hardware and software. Even more importantly, elimination of the need for access to printing presses and paper supplies has removed traditional barriers to entering the publishing business; anyone with an inexpensive computer and a network connection can now set up a server and pump out bits.
The likely result is a radical change in the sizes and locations of information supply points. When the Chicago Tribune Tower was constructed, it stood as the proudly visible center of a vast collection and distribution system and an emblem of the power of the press. Every day the news flowed in and the printed papers flowed out to the surrounding metropolis. But on the infobahn, where every node is potentially both a publication and consumption point, such centralized concentrations of activity will be supplanted by millions of dispersed fragments.