I Have Seen Tomorrow! Part Two

BLOG #32, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!
Part Two
August 8, 2012

As we know, an epiphany is a life-changing day. Looking backwards through time, we can pick out certain days that, had they not have been, our lives would have taken a different trajectory than was true with them. I strongly suspect that our tour through the great printing plant may prove to be one of them.

Our illustrious guide honed our sense of anticipation by hyping in almost every room we toured the piéce de résistance that awaited us at the end: something—we weren’t told what—that would radically change the publishing world.

But early on, we were ushered through the world we knew. What shocked us was our guide’s off-hand dismissal of them as being already passé. Examples: “This machine [huge, filling most of a very large room] was state of the art back in 2000” . . . . “This machine [yes it was built in Germany like so many of the finest and fastest printing machines] came out in 2003. Dated now” . . . . “This machine came out in 2005—revolutionary for its time” . . . . “This made real waves back in 2008″ . . . . This machine—oh it’s so 2010!” [as if it were already a dinosaur]. “This is one of our newest ones—2011—still the best of its kind.” And then: 2012.

After being plied with question about why 2012 was so significant in the history of printing, our guide pointed out that for over half a millennium—ever since Gutenberg—,speed has been the constant goal. If the fastest press known to man could run off 100 sheets in an hour, one that could do 200 represented a notable breakthrough. So there came a long line of ever-faster machines, machines that made obsolete everything slower that came before.

He showed us the current workhorse of the establishment: one they used for print-runs for 20,000 – 30,000 books at a time. They are so expensive to purchase and operate that they lose money on book-runs of fewer than 20,000 copies. I had a sudden flashback: hearing editors say, “Unless your book sells a minimum of 20,000 copies, we’re not interested in keeping it in print.” “So could this machine be the reason?” I asked our guide. “Bingo!” was the response.

But back to the break-through machine. Our guide informed us that throughout printing history lithography (dot-based printing) has had a finite limit—sort of like the old sound-barrier (many prophesied that no one would ever be able to fly faster than sound); but, as we all know, that threshold has long since been passed, so that today no one knows whether or not there is a limit to aeronautical speed.

Seeing the bemused look on our faces, our guide smiled and said, “Here’s the problem that has faced modern engineers for so long that many maintained we’d reached our printing speed ceiling. As the press spits out printed sheets at faster and faster speeds, you reach a point where the ink blurs, blobs (loses its distinctiveness), and you’re forced to back off. But companies—even nations, especially printing giants such as Germany and Japan—have for years been in an engineering race to see which one might accomplish the impossible: break the printing speed barrier.

And then we walked into another room—and there it was!. To the deep chagrin of Germany and Japan, Hewlett Packard’s engineers came up with the break-through. So America can yet triumph technologically over the rest of the world. Our guide tried to explain how, in layman’s terms, the miracle works: a different sequence of print color applications—I must confess, as being one of the world’s most technologically deprived thinkers, that I only vaguely understand why this one works and all the others don’t. All I know is that it does. And TerryBolinger and I were able to reverently touch one of fewer than a dozen such machines in the world.

Now, they say, using this breakthrough technology, press-runs may now speed up so fast, thanks to nanotechnology, that there appears to be no upper limits—opening up the probability that sooner than one might think, authors will be told that the next big machine will print so fast that only the works of best-selling authors selling in seven, eight, or nine figures will qualify.

So, does this mean all hope is gone for all of us lesser-lights? Is there no hope for the continuing existence of slower-selling but continuing-to-sell books that never go out of vogue?

We’ll get into that next Wednesday.

I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!

BLOG #31, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!
Part One
August 1, 2012

Yes, it’s true! Six days ago, Terry Bolinger and I were privileged to experience tomorrow’s publishing world before it actually arrived. The venue was one of the oldest and largest publishing conglomerates in the world, and we were graciously given a two-hour VIP tour.

As we threaded our way through room after room of machinery, we experienced first a world I felt supremely comfortable in: the world of traditional print, that began during the decade of 1440 – 1450, with the German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg leading the way with his 42-line Bible in 1456, 556 years ago. That Golden Age of Print reached its zenith during the century beginning in 1880 and ending in 1980 (roughly speaking). I am personally a product of its last half.

Occasionally, during my blogs and published writing, I have referred to the tides of life: periodically, both collectively and individually, we experience ebb-tides and incoming-tides. They are God-given because nothing in all creation is static, for change is constant. But both ebb-tides and incoming-tides dramatically alter our lives, for better or for worse.

Perhaps some of the most poignant and pertinent lines in all literature were penned by the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson in “The Mill,” which contains in its muffled understated lines two work-related suicides:

“The miller’s wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
‘There are no millers any more,’
Was all that she had heard him say;
And he had lingered at the door
So long that it seemed yesterday.”

The second stanza contains his suicide by hanging, and the third concludes with her drowning.

Back then, every self-respecting hamlet and town boasted a mill, where farmers brought the product of their land to be ground into food for themselves and their livestock. But suddenly, due to the pace of technological change, the miller realized with a shudder that since “There are no millers anymore,” his place in the world had been eradicated; the only career he knew was, without preamble or advance warning, no more. The mill itself, in which he and his ancestors from time immemorial had invested their life savings, was now all but worthless. Facing absolute financial ruin, he concluded that suicide offered the only viable alternative to starvation and bankruptcy; and she, facing a world which demeaned women and offered them terribly few career options, was so overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation, that she quietly slipped into the mill-pond, feeling it offered the least messy departure from life.

There is an equally powerful short story written by the English author John Galsworthy. Simply titled “Quality,” it tells the story of a London shoemaker who prides himself on making the best and longest lasting shoes and boots it was possible to make. His customers knew their footware would be custom-made to their own foot contours. Of course they took time to make for each was a one-of-a-kind work of art. But technological change made possible mass market footware at lower prices and instant availability. And Galsworthy’s protagonist ends up starving himself to death rather than compromise on the issue of quality. Whenever I have read this story out loud to my students, there has been absolute silence in the classroom, the ultimate tribute to a life-changing story.

So what Terry and I saw and experienced six days ago represents both an ebb-tide to a vanishing way of life and an incoming-tide whose long-range impact can only be guessed at. One reality is, however, inescapable: life as we know it, and have known it, will never be again.

* * *
We will pick up where I left off (beginning the publishing house tour) next Wednesday.