Dispatches > The Buzz

15-minute paperbacks

Instant digital books strike another blow against gatekeepers; also, black boxes, and the new Lost Generation

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

McPaperback
In a few years, bookstores will be able to get you any book you want-digitally. If they don't have a copy on their shelves, they'll be able to print up a custom-made volume in about 15 minutes. That means anything from A Man in Full to Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices can be in your hands in the time it takes you to eat a fast-food meal. An Atlanta-based company called Sprout is already developing what it calls print-on-demand, which could turn book publishing upside down. Right now, it only has about 1,300 titles in its digital library, but thousands more are in the works. The Borders chain gave Sprout a big vote of confidence this month by buying almost 20 percent of the company. Eventually, every bookstore would use two digital printers and a binding machine. One printer makes the color, paperback cover and the other makes the pages. Once the Kinkos-esque process is done, the layman won't be able to tell the difference between the store-made copy and one from the original printing. This means a potential bonanza for independent publishers and those who want to see their old favorites back in print. For serious Christian authors and publishers, it means liberation from secular book buyers who ignore them and religious stores who consider ink-and-paper a loss leader. Klaas Schilder will be as accessible as John Grisham. It's another example of the decline of the gatekeepers-those commercial media sharks who decide what the mass public can and cannot see, hear, read, and install. Today, online bookstores are more than glad to sell anybody on the Net any book in print and will even scour the shelves of used bookstores for older titles. Books on demand make bottomless selections even easier. Niche titles can stay in print indefinitely. Authors can collect more royalties and escape the torture of having their garages filled with unsold, privately published books. Get ready for a revolution. Maybe it can be turned into a Reformation. Black boxes on wheels
Black boxes aren't just on planes anymore. GM has installed them on hundreds of thousands of 1999-model cars, including the Buick Century, the Cadillac Eldorado, the Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette, and the Pontiac Firebird. Experts say information from the devices, which collect data during wrecks, will show what happens to people during accidents. This "sensing and diagnostic module" is inside the air bag system and collects information on the car's speed, when the air bag inflated, and whether the driver was wearing his seat belt and used the brakes. These gizmos, which store data just before the air bags kick in, have been quietly installed in various cars throughout this decade and will eventually be used in all GM vehicles. Company officials only recently admitted they existed, prompting a host of legal and privacy issues. GM says the devices helped uncover an air bag deployment bug that led to the recall last year of 850,000 Cavaliers and Sunfires. Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler have also come out with their own black boxes, but with fewer features. Auto insurers are jumping on the black-box bandwagon, since they want to see who is at fault after a collision-and who gets to cough up some cash. But no one knows how well black-box data stands up in court. And since the device is new, no one knows how trustworthy they are. "I do not like the world"
Bill Gates, meet Albert Camus. French literary sensation Michel Houellebecq has washed ashore with his novel Whatever (Serpent's Tail), which tosses the digital revolution into a meatgrinder. His semi-autobiographical hero is a 30-year-old computer programmer who has a healthy bank account but no close human relationships whatsoever. Life is just "prolonged boredom," he says. As he chain smokes his life away, his mind fills with misogynist, bitter thoughts about life. "I don't like the world," he says, "I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke." The narrator has no ambition and cares about nothing. When he's sent off to train some obscure bureaucrat, he really goes nuts. Before checking himself into a loony bin, he plots with a co-worker to chase down and knife a young woman who ignored his advances. This techie may have a cool job, but his only vital contacts are with machines that he hates and chit-chat with colleagues he sniffs at. "The days slip by indifferently, leaving neither trace nor memory; and then all of a sudden they stop," he says. Dilbert this isn't. French readers are hailing Mr. Houellebecq as the spokesman of the new Lost Generation. Those literary winds are bound to cross the Atlantic. The author himself is the stuff of controversy in literary circles. Not only does he criticize consumerism and capitalism, he also attacks student radicalism and-significantly-abortion. Such disaffected writing is the sort of thing destined to be required college reading in a few years. The book isn't a good read, in that it is too dry, too obnoxious, and lacks the wit required to carry this story. What makes Whatever seem so edgy is that it breaks with the typical view that our ever-computerized society makes everything ever-better. Mr. Houellebecq points out that atomization breaks down relations among people, thus creating a new legion of hollow men. They are close to no one, reject God, but don't need to worry about paying their bills. What will become of such people?

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