Could CD-ROMs deny future generations access to our knowledge?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 06/90 item 01 - scanned

Something needs to happen, that's for sure. At several events recently, I have been given CD-ROMs (let's just call them CDs) on the assumption that I will be able to plug them into my Macintosh or PC when I got home. The fact is I don't actually own a player. Whenever I'm asked to review CDs, I borrow a machine for the duration. Call me tight-fisted, but I'm not prepared to pay more than two or three hundred pounds for one of my own.

Anyway, the pressure is on me to do something about this state of affairs. I now have at least half a dozen CDs, full of really interesting information, sitting around in my office. They are a combination of CD versions of books, demonstrations of software, real software and technical documentation. All of which I'd very much like to examine.

Now Develop, the Apple Technical Journal, has been launched and guess what's bound into its centre? That's right, a CD-ROM disk. It contains the full text of the journal, including plenty of examples of source code you can simply cut and paste straight into your programs.

Large volumes of information can be published far more cheaply on CD. The Apple Developers' Group has started publishing a quarterly CD which contains electronic versions of its technical notes, questions and answers, utilities, current releases of System software and, I believe, pre-releases. All this is done in the multiple supported languages and, in addition to saving a few acres of trees, it's a darned sight more convenient both in portability and ease of use. Compared with paper, the CD offers Apple a really cheap way of keeping developers informed.

The benefits of CD don't stop here. As you know, one of the major benefits is randomness of access, and the variety of data formats which can be held. Illustrations, text, sound and so on can all be held in this compact medium. At the moment, Apple developers are a pretty good audience for these CDs, but once the readers are installed on the majority of personal computers, the publishing opportunities will explode.

Which would you rather do - read a software review comprising several pages of flat two-dimensional text with accompanying screen shots, or see the product in action with voice-overs, video and supporting text? Instead of a time -consuming process of building your concept of the product from the writer's prose, you'll be able to see it instantly. It doesn't bode well for publishers who fail to make the move, but surely this is the future of certain types of publishing. Why look at cars in a magazine, when you can see them performing on the road?

I can't really see the point of putting the works of Charles Dickens on CD or, indeed, the latest Barbara Cartland romance. Ignoring the environmental aspect, some things are actually better in book form. Call me a Luddite, but I can't see me ever wanting to lie on a beach reading from an electronic novel. But if we're talking about an encyclopaedia or details of the Macintosh operating system, I'd prefer to rummage electronically any day.

I suspect that I'm not alone in thinking this and, if the CD-ROM player becomes as common as, say, the personal stereo, then I reckon that thousands of publishers will start pushing out disc-only versions of their works. The two-dimensional reference book could become as outmoded as a milk maid's yoke.

In fact, we could be approaching a turning point in the history of civilisation. If we are to commit increasing amounts of our knowledge to a medium which can only be read back with the aid of electricity then, for the first time in history, we will not be able to read our own literature with the naked eye. I know we've had computer records, microfiche and microfilm before, but this is different. Much of this material will be electronically generated - it will never have form outside of the computer system.

Once, the great Library at Alexandria held virtually all the world's knowledge but, because most of these manuscripts were burned, very little remains of this treasure house of ancient knowledge. I wonder if we could be about to deny future generations ready access to our own accumulated wisdom?