The Internet will be fifteen years old on November 13. And like many fifteen year olds, it's primarily obsessed with computer games, celebrity gossip and porn. Like most teens, the Internet is also experiencing awkward growing pains and struggling with its sense of identity.
The latest instance: the war of the words. Google and MicroSoft are both racing to make complete books available online, starting with texts whose copyrights have expired. Amazon, not to be left behind, is going to make books available for purchase by the page.
How do we, the disparate masses of humanity, feel about this?
Most of us are still standing around scratching our heads, trying to figure out how this will all end up. Are we dealing an irreparable blow to authors and print publishers? Or will this, like sliced bread and network television, be the next great Thing No One Really Needs But Everyone Will Insist On Having?
Personally, every time I consider the issue, I find myself thinking about pay toilets. Or, in the case of Amazon's idea, coin operated toilet paper dispensers -- "pay only for as much as you use!" How can you tell which pages you want to purchase? Will you be able to go to romance novel sections and say, "I'd like to buy only the dirty pages, please?"
On the other hand, I could save myself a lot of time by simply going in and buying the last chapters of most books. Crack the DaVinci code, learn who the Half-Blood Prince is, find out what Nora Roberts' "Blue" is "smoking," all for pennies on the dollar! Perhaps I can pioneer a new industry and begin writing book page reviews. "While page eighty-three contains riveting dialogue and crucial plot elements, page ninety-four is, for the most part, setting. Unless you are a big fan of rolling meadow descriptions, I recommend you save your seventeen cents and just download pages eighty-one and eighty-two instead, so you actually have half an idea what the story is about."
Will sections of a book that are tied up with boring descriptions or stupid subplots get bargain pricing? Are there editors out there suddenly smiling as they realize that if filler or shoddy pages get discounted, there will be a lot more writers scrambling to tighten up their work and make sure every page is worth premium price?
But while one or two easily inflamed pundits on either side of the fence have managed to form opinions, most people are still in the, "You're kidding -- I have to form a well-thought out stance on something else now?" stage.
In homes all across America, mothers are saying, "Sorry, kids, it's reheated corn dogs for dinner tonight -- Daddy and I have to decide what we think about yet another 'important' issue."
Couples are calling each other up to cancel date nights. "I know we were supposed to see a movie tonight, honey, but this new Internet thing came up in the news..."
"Well, we were supposed to talk about how we feel about FEMA Chief Michael Brown's spokeswoman saying, 'Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt, all shirts. ... In this [crisis] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working.' Do we save that for Saturday, or do we discuss Brown tonight and decide a position on the books-on-the-Internet thing this weekend?"
I had a similar conversation with my own husband. Usually John is a hardcore informed opinion maker. Always has his nose in a book, magazine or newspaper, perusing world events and political analyses. He listens to several radio talk shows. He watches C-Span for hours at a time (sober!). He did all this before we met, so I know my conversation isn't so boring that it drives him to such tedious extremes. Still, sometimes it bothers me that talking to me and listening to Senate debates ("No, Senator, YOU'RE the poopie head!") are both, he claims, wildly intriguing to him.
"Okay, Mr. Informed Electorate," I told him, holding up a list of notes. "The kid is in bed. Do we research and discuss Brown, books being made available online, Gov. Schwarzenegger's latest propositions, imminent domain, supercenter stores, 'Scooter' Libby, arctic drilling or the bird flu?"
John considered my list with a weary look. "Or... we could just do Chinese take-out and shop Amazon for book pages containing the words, 'Paris Hilton' and 'bimbo'."
Eh. I'm in.
Happy birthday, Internet.
Comments and book page recommendations to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in a November 2005 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.