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The next chapter for digital publishing

In an age where a digital face is able to hold our attention for longer than a real one, physically selecting your next read from the dusty shelves of a local bookshop is becoming almost a foreign concept. Even the pastime of reading for pleasure steadily declines in popularity as we speak…or text. As the modern world refreshes as quickly as our Instagram feeds, the ability to ignore a fluorescent shower of online notifications and turn, instead, to a page of words which cease to change is regarded a commodity and no longer a privilege. It is therefore no surprise that the world of publishing is slowly moving towards a digitalised future. 

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Once a revolutionary development in the distribution of written work, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press has lost its former commendation as it is shuffled along with hopes of rekindling our attention through virtual means. Newspapers, articles and even entire texts – deemed “E-Books” – in a PDF format are now at our disposal through a couple of clicks. To stay up to date with current news and events, we are forced into the online community especially as the nation struggles to remain informed with the latest COVID-19 broadcasts. Indeed, although our current face-to-face exchanges remain somewhat sparse, the internet seeks to reconnect the population on a digital platform, using informal networking sites such as Facebook alongside a variety of virtual chat programmes like Zoom. What need do we have to cradle a heavy bundle of ink-blotted papers to feed our curiosity when the most topical articles and updates are reachable from a lightweight screen in our pockets?

However, surrounded by varying voices, professional and otherwise, on an international scale can have its repercussions. For one, how do we decipher between fact and fiction? Having adopted its own subcategory of Internet jargon deemed “fake news”, the distribution of such is becoming too widespread to control and continues to mutate and grow alongside a younger and more vulnerable generation, who are now being given Internet exposure before they can walk. We are also made wary of the psychological effects of online media, as exampled by conflicting studies and accounts circulating mental and physical well-being. How many times do we self-diagnose ourselves with terminal illnesses after consulting our digital GP – aka the Google search engine?The long-standing debate is quite a page turner – or perhaps more of a screen scroller.

Shifting away from pen and paper has also had a significant economic impact. Software like Microsoft Word or online equivalents have eliminated the necessity to purchase extortionately priced stationary as they provide limitless paper and ink, aesthetically attractive fonts and zero clumsy blotches dotted across the page from a lovely yet impractical cup of tea. As a student of English Literature myself, I am well acquainted with the extensive lists of costly textbooks handed out annually like household bills and deserving of their own, separate student loan. Thus, having the capability to seek out online resources that cost nothing more than some time has eased both an exponentially growing sum of parental debt and perhaps also those who simply cannot meet the financial demands of academic study. 

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However, despite its practicality, although it seems somewhat illogical to traverse the pricey local bookshops when a digital universe of literature awaits us on the computer screen, it is important to consider our local communities and support independent businesses. Businesses that fail to match the profits on online booksellers. Businesses that care about the products they sell and not solely the financial reward they receive for such. Fighting against ever-expanding chains like WHSmiths and Rymans, these stand-alone stores are now in competition with virtual competitors who evade copyright laws through technological loopholes. We seek to criticise companies that accumulate vast amounts of wealth through online means and yet find ourselves adding to their profits because of their cost-effective products.

A further point of interest in digitalising our media is the environmental impacts. With most published work being readily available on screen, the physical production of texts is slowly on the decline, leading to a significant retraction in the amount of paper extracted by means such as deforestation.

Similarly, daily newspapers and magazines dating back decades have been forced to technologically adapt in order to maintain popularity, making jobs like paper rounds and flyer distributors less common and certainly less necessary especially when online marketing proves to have a far more widespread outreach than those that clog up the paper recycling. In terms of education, students are being directed to online resources, saving both paper and printing costs for teachers.

Mainstream social media has begun to replace the process of sending and receiving letters, leading to a mass reduction in CO2 emissions from fuel whilst still maintaining fast-pace communication. Moreover, online apps such as Depop and Shpock are environmental advocates for the buying and selling of second-hand items which retaliate against mass production and provide sustainable alternatives to ethical yet expensive fashion sites.

Yet despite our efforts to radically reduce our carbon footprint, the digital revolution pollutes our planet almost as much as it revitalises it. Fast fashion companies seek to profit from our dangerous affiliation with online shopping, sourcing goods from overseas due to cheap labour costs. Not only does this mean an increase in cargo emissions, but also the production of contaminating dyes and flimsy materials alongside a sharp rise in plastic packaging.

Online shopping is undoubtably a large contributing factor in the environmental demise of our planet – particularly sites like Amazon which routinely distribute thousands of products across international waters. Furthermore, partnered in the surge of online sales are endless marketing media and advertisements which have similarly, in the past few years, transferred to an online space, using software to target specific demographics and making us more susceptible to online companies advocating a stray from a sustainable future.

Perhaps the most controversial argument in relation to the digitalisation of published work is the creation of the Kindle. The long-standing debate is quite a page turner – or perhaps more of a screen scroller. Indeed, whilst the Kindle wields the advantage of practicality, it equally poses some moral issues, namely the conservation of an already ethically questionable cooperation (Amazon). However, in an age where swapping our phone for a book is a challenge, not a hobby, the Kindle encourages a new generation of readers through its easy access to literature, albeit via digital means. Modern features of this product also facilitate our initial reservations about reading off a screen: its light weight and screen brightness adjustments are attributes that make it difficult to find fault. Newly adapted models of the device even have waterproof capabilities which eclipse the practicality of reading from a book. 

What remains is the argument of authenticity and those who retain an inability to relinquish the traditional methods of reading in a world moving towards an online future. Unwanted as it may be, financial, environmental and practical benefits of digital media seem to outweigh our nagging subconscious that longs for a retreat into the deviceless past and, although technology brings with it as many disadvantages as it does rewards, our ability to adapt and evolve is perhaps the most admirable aspect of the next chapter of the digital age.  

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