The Null Device
The onward march of the internet age has taken a historic casualty: yesterday, Encyclopaedia Britannica has announced that it is giving up printing encyclopaedias; those solidly shelf-filling expanses of dead information bound in leather and gold ink, which many a parent paid handsomely for their children to have access to, will soon be as dead as the Pony Express. The last edition of the Britannica to appear is the 2010 edition, whose new entries included global warming and the Human Genome Project.
In the 1950s, having the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den, a possession coveted for its usefulness and as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class. Buying a set was often a financial stretch, and many families had to pay for it in monthly installments.
Sales of the Britannica peaked in 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States. But now print encyclopedias account for less than 1 percent of the Britannica’s revenue. About 85 percent of revenue comes from selling curriculum products in subjects like math, science and the English language; 15 percent comes from subscriptions to the Web site, the company said.The Britannica is a casualty of the shifting economics of information, the rise of the internet, and more specifically, the rise of Wikipedia; now that collating information no longer requires an expensive infrastructure (such as a business with dozens of editors and experts) but only some servers and the good will of countless volunteers across the world, traditional encyclopaedias have found their raison d'etre diminishing. The Britannica fought against this tide, pooh-poohing the Wikipedia approach, with its lack of formal authority, and asserting that nothing good can possibly come of it, only to find itself losing market share to something good enough; orders of magnitude broader in subject matter, almost instantaneously up to date, and not so catastrophically unreliable as to negate these points (and, in fact, according to some studies, not significantly more error-prone than the Britannica). Soon, the price of encyclopaedias crashed, with Craigslist being littered with second-hand sets whose owners no longer have a need (or space) for them; meanwhile, of the 12,000 copies of the 2010 Britannica printed, 1/3 languish unsold in a warehouse.
The Britannica company will keep publishing an online edition, accessible by a $70 annual subscription fee, in the hope that enough people will find its conservative editorial approach a selling point rather than a liability.
Some hackers in Germany have automated the process of generating semi-random T-shirt designs. The result is Zufallsshirt (“chance shirt”), a sort of Borgesian infinite library of quasi-ironic T-shirts. It generates a huge number of combinations of phrases (mostly in German, though with quite a few in English), words and clip-art. Some look like the sort of thrift-store attire hipsters wore 15 years ago, others like miscellaneous ravey wordmarks pumped out by T-shirt labels, and others are rectangles of acrostics of random words.
Some of the results are more presentable than others; one might believe that “Budapest Bicycle Flux” was a semi-obscure math-rock band whose gig the wearer happened to catch in some college-town bar back in the day, and there are situations where one might plausibly wear a T-shirt reading “I Reject Your Reality And Replace It With Cupcakes”, which, alas, cannot be said for some of the outputs, such as “your vagina is a wonderland”, or a grid of words including “Hitlerponys”, “Mörderpenis” and/or the decidedly euphemistic-sounding “wurstvuvuzela”. There are no permalinks and no way of keeping a design other than by buying it (i.e., getting it printed and shipped, which is done by a Leipzig-based mail-order T-shirt printing company). Or by saving the .png file of the image from the website. Anyway, I suspect that the creators have made a fair amount of money, and quite a few people have drawers full of odd-looking shirts from a parallel universe.
Interestingly enough, after clicking through the site for a while, a reader with a limited grasp of German may find their German comprehension improving slightly; perhaps the flood of meaningful (if nonsequiturial) sentences exercises the language pattern-matching parts of the brain in some kind of process of combinatorial fuzzing, reinforcing plausible word sequences.