The Revenge of Print

In the wireless era, is the paper medium simply passé for the work of activists? Are zamizdat, fanzines and political magazines just good for historians? After the mid-nineties zine crisis due to a sudden rise of the cost of paper and the advent of the Internet, the actual role of magazines seems to be re-defined and still strategical for the circulation of ideas.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the death of paper was predicted [1]. It was forecasted just after the advent of public electricity networks and the consequent spreading of new revolutionary media, like the radio and the telegraph. The innovation impetus induced the hypothesis that the electrical transmission of the voice would make an end to the printed distribution of information, replacing magazines and books with the faster voice that was transmitted through the air and (mainly) over cables. The future seemed to be with wires everywhere that would have spread the content of libraries to every home or to public spaces with some sort of kiosks and primitive headphones attached to all these receivers.
Half a century later Marshall McLuhan forecasted a similar process [2]: "the book [is] an increasingly obsolete form of communication.", because of its slowness compared to television. In the late fifties it was a question of speed, of changing perception of time and space, and the printed medium seemed to be much too slow to diffuse and consume information. Finally, the end of paper was one of the worst prophecies in the eighties, at the beginning of the personal information age. The pc marketing figured out the dream of a 'paper-less office', with massive magnetic archives that would have replaced a huge amount of paper. But all of this simply didn't happen. What is more: paper and the printed medium at large have significantly contributed to the spread of new media culture and consciousness. So paper is here to stay. And no shortage of electricity can shut off a printed magazine or a book.


Instead of dying, the paper medium seems to have succeeded in making an efficient synergy with the networked medium. In the eighties, big newspapers started to transmit their European/American editions over the ocean via combined scanner-modem machines, and to print the copies locally. Today this is a cheap option for everyone with a dial-up Internet connection. And many are the possibilities of distributing texts within a network. One is efficiently realized by the Internet Bookmobile project [3]. Founded by Brewster Khale, the founder of the Internet Archive (also known as the 'Wayback Machine'), it spreads electronic texts physically, printing them on demand in front of libraries, schools and museums. Khale uses basic technologies (computer, printer, binder) stored in a van he toured the States with. The Bookcrossing [4] daily business is also creating a free network of exchanging books. Joining a simple mechanism of tracking, everyone can leave a book in a public place that anybody else can pick up, doing the same after reading it. In this case the data network is just the informative infrastructure to ease the free exchange of culture in physical shape among thousands of practitioners. These kinds of efforts are in fact clearly distinguished from the proprietary struggle around e-books and e-papers, which in the end amounts to an attempt to better preserve the rights of the publisher. "Using encryption and watermarking systems, publishers hope to connect every copy of a book with a known person, and prevent anyone else from reading it.", as Richard Stallman noted [5]. Who needs crippled, computer-like devices to be able to read unstable copyright-locked electronic texts? Everyone, instead, needs a free exchange of electronic texts that should generate permanent paper copies with cheap methods of reproduction and circulation.


Today, paper also seems to legitimate other media, such as television or the web. The time and the effort needed to produce something in print, contribute to make it more trustworthy and meditated, compared to the immediacy of realtime written text. But also web parodies, or net-art dealing with fake identities, or even more plagiarist practices are as much recognized as they succeed in deceiving corporate newspapers, magazines and TV news. So print is becoming the quintessential of the web, rewarding the most valuable contents and ideas with the dignity of a medium that has a duplication rate significantly lower than the electronic ones and at the same time is really cheap to access. In the era of 'unstable media', paper is the most 'stable' medium in the complex and fast-changing mediascape.


[1] Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida, ?La fin des Livres? in: ?Contes pour les Bibliophiles' 1895, France.
[2] Marshall McLuhan, ?Explorations 3,? 1955, USA.
[5] Richard Stallman, ?Can freedom withstand e-books?,? 2000.