New media vs. the old

Culture | Net treats, paperbacks, and other buzz

Issue: "Is our military ready?," May 29, 1999

The cookie Monster
Want a cookie? That's what endless Web sites ask whenever users come by. These cookies don't come in oatmeal or chocolate chip. A cookie is a tiny ID tag that many sites send to Web browsers. It means that the typical Net users give up a little bit of privacy when they surf the Net. Cookies allow many Web sites to greet you personally when you visit. Often they store passwords and personal information to save typing and make online shopping faster. Sites can use cookies to track where people go and what they do on their pages. Critics complain that they are being silently watched. Cookies became controversial among hardcore Net users when they first became popular in 1996 and 1997. Many flipped an obscure switch in the preference settings of Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer that made their software refuse them or alert users before accepting them. A few people have developed software to make them go away. Yet a quick trip to the "cookies" file in Netscape or the cookies directory in Internet Explorer gives a travelogue of where one has been online. Those looking for a quick dose of paranoia might want to dig up these files. Often hundreds of sites have passed some form of ID code along. Cookies represent the Great Web Trade-off: convenience for privacy. Even with Las Vegas-style security, a brick-and-mortar store can track what its customers buy, but it can't track where they browse. On the other hand, an online store can collect all sorts of data, in exchange for being able to hunt down an obscure item quickly and zap it to you overnight. Usually sites dumb down their own statistics to keep out of hot water over privacy and only keep records of aggregate customers instead of individuals. Privacy groups and the industry are still haggling over standards on what can and can't be done with the cookie. But cookies won't go away. Like it or not, companies collect data on where you've been on the Net and use it to help sell their products. The issue is like a real-life sci-fi novel-and we are only in the first chapter. Paperback writers
For decades, America's taste in books has been driven by what the publishing industry calls the "mass-market paperback," a cultural pillar that may be slipping away. They're so familiar we hardly notice them as they sit in racks in airports, drugstores, and supermarkets. They line the shelves of mall bookstores with pop and pulp fiction, romance, mystery, and westerns, offering recent bestsellers and cheesy formula novels with cheap paper, ink, and binding. Like top-40 radio, soap operas, and LP records, cheap, disposable paperbacks are quietly slipping beneath the sands of postmodernity. According to the Book Industry Study Group, they made up 36 percent of book sales in 1997 as compared to 39 percent in 1993. That's a slow but steady drop. It means more customers would rather pay a little more for a sturdier book. When Pocket Books first gave America cheap paperbacks back before WWII, they were a sensation. Their value and wide distribution turned the industry into a cultural gatekeeper, keeping the likes of Zane Grey, Dr. Spock, and Jackie Collins before the public eye. Now superstores and online shopping have come, marking down prices and widening selections. As the paperback gets more expensive, hardbacks become more popular. So do trade paperbacks, which feature better quality workmanship. The decline of mass-market paperbacks is more than just a blip on publishers' spreadsheets. It means that writers looking for a bestseller have more reason to bite their nails over hardcover publication. It also means that mass publishing is losing ground to the postmodern cacophony of endless niche publishers and books. If readers can get exactly what they want at Borders, why bother with cheap, flimsy paperbacks? This also means that there's a crack in the door for those with something to say to jump in and grab market share. Writers no longer have to achieve mass appeal with assembly-line books. With enough wit and business savvy, another hurdle can be jumped. Not writing, but typing
Computers may have reached over half of American homes, but there remains an influential minority that won't be without their trusty typewriters. Tom Wolfe concocted all 727 pages of A Man In Full through all its drafts on an old 1966 Underwood. He said he tried using a word processor but his fingers couldn't take it. "I had a typewriter touch, not a computer touch," he says. So he keeps slugging away on a machine older than his two children. Playwright David Mamet and a few other literati keep their typewriters oiled and running, even though companies like Underwood, Royal, and Remington are gone now, and mighty IBM quit making them eight years ago. Another prolific New York scribe, Jimmy Breslin, complains that floppy disks don't give the same feeling of accomplishment as ink and paper. "All the charm is out of it," he remarked in 1997. "Sometimes, you know, I just want to hold the finished thing." Typewriters are getting more and more respect after being buried beneath the power of Word and WordPerfect. They are popping up as props in store windows and stage plays. Some repair shops still exist. They take old clickety-clack machines and treat them with a surgeon's care. Some of this lingering fondness for the old Underwood is natural nostalgia mixed with fogginess over a bad first date with a Compaq Presario. Yet the PC and the typewriter provide different experiences for the writer. The typewriter is live interaction with ink and paper. It requires the mental dexterity to say something right and the physical agility to avoid typos. They don't get buggy or lose memory, but their mechanical problems and lack of easy correction can be torturous. Computers take the writer's trashcan out of the physical world and make it a decorative icon on a screen. They put writing in a virtual never-never land where anything can change. Technology makes writing easier, cheaper, and faster, but some say they lose something in the translation. Of course, they said the same thing when the typewriter challenged the fountain pen.

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