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TeleRead: A Virtual Central Database without Big Brother

Note: This is a draft of David Rothman's TeleRead chapter in Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, an MIT Presss/ASIS book that appeared in 1996. The TeleRead idea has evolved since then. For the latest description of the concept, see the Net version of a November 2001 talk at eBook 2001.

ABSTRACT: A virtual central database could help specialists fathom each other's work, and it could also enlighten the population at large. Even the Internet lacks some crucial tools for serious researchers and does not back up important files systematically. A Big Brotherish nightmare, however, could unfold if the United States relied on a virtual central database without checks on bureaucrats. The plan below responds to such needs. It calls for Electronic Federalism to encourage both quality control and freedom of expression. Also, this essay tells how we could justify the cost of a national database by systematically diverting resources from bureaucracy to knowledge. The ideas here, although discussed in U.S. terms, might also apply to other countries such as Canada.

PITY the journalist who must decode the jargon of lawyers or pharmacists; the science teacher who knows that he or she is teaching obsolete theories; the congressional aide curious about health care in Canada or the psyche of North Korean leaders; or the average voter who can't fathom most government news, and who then retreats to the sports section. Even scholars can feel cut off from their hyperspecialized peers.

In "As We May Think," a classical essay in The Atlantic Monthly of July 1945, Vannevar Bush called for technology to help consolidate knowledge. "Mendel's concept of the law of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it," Bush wrote; "and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential."

His observations are even truer today--given the many more words churned out each year by modern academia, and the fact that the full texts of most books are not available through computer networks. Simply put, we need a virtual central database online, melding wisdom from many subjects and fostering mass enlightenment.

The real value of knowledge is not in dollars and cents but in the potential to help give us a cancer cure or a 175-m.p.g. automobile. The easier it is for a medical researcher or engine designer to explore other fields, the more they can accomplish in their own; the cancer researcher, for example, might benefit from the most arcane of papers on DNA, while the designer might hasten the coming of the 175-m.p.g. car if he saw the right paper in metallurgy. A virtual central database with powerful search capabilities would enrich Americans both intellectually and financially.

Such a national information system, in fact, could even be part of our schools. American students could grow up with computers that could tap into well-stocked databases from home; they would spend more time reading the most appropriate books and other items, and less time searching for them--assuming they could even afford the materials in the first place without such a system. Teachers, of course, would be able to prepare for classes more efficiently. The appropriate program could help address some of the major concerns in the "Prisoners of Time" report from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning.

We could serve other needs simultaneously if the federal government used a focused procurement program to drive down the cost of tablet-style computers for reading, writing, other school-related uses, and civic networking. The same machines would be just right for smart electronic forms. So business people would spend far less time meeting the paperwork needs of federal, state, and local governments.

Likewise, TV watchers could use the forms for ordering goods and services more easily than they could with stick-style remote controls. In small ways and large, then, we would be more efficient. The total savings in time and money would reach tens of billions of dollars a year--an unscientific but conservative estimate for a $6-trillion-plus economy. Benefits would easily justify a virtual central database consuming about half a percent of the Gross Domestic Product as envisioned here. In effect we would be shifting billions of dollars from bureaucracy to knowledge.

When, in the issue of April 4, 1994, The New Yorker ran a significant but flawed article about electronic library catalogues, it unwittingly showed the need for a better information system than we have today. The New Yorker is the Tiffany of magazines. It has long prided itself on popular-level writing that offers the authority of experts, and that can sway policy-makers. Despite gossip about the weaknesses of this or that editor, the magazine is among the more prestigious of lay periodicals. But even there at The New Yorker, articles may contain striking omissions, as happened in the case of the long piece on library catalogues. The New Yorker writer complained that newfangled, computerized catalogues were replacing the venerable stacks of cards in wooden trays.

Rather astutely, Nicholson Baker pointed out the large number of errors in the electronic versions put together by cheap labor. He also praised the value of the handwritten cross-references and other informal annotations that libraries make on card catalogues. So far, so good. Major libraries indeed are foolish to throw out the cards without preserving the notes electronically. Not once, however, did Baker allude by name to the World Wide Web, the talk of the Internet.

Baker's New Yorker article mentioned hypertext but in a generic way. Either Baker did not know of the Web or he failed to grasp how germane it was to his article. Using technology like the Web, not only librarians but also other readers could create cross-references and annotations. And so a Web-style approach in the future, especially one with improved search capabilities, would be far superior to the old paper catalogues. That is no piddling detail. Granted, the New Yorker article served up its share of useful facts such as the premature destruction of the cards blessed by the annotations. But a picky professor of information science would have flunked him for overlooking the full potential of the Web.

Still, for reasons that Baker failed to explore adequately, he is right in his gut feeling that today's electronic libraries are a long way from the paper equivalent. And it is not just for want of enough books online. Consider the shortcomings of popular search tools on the Internet such as the Gopher-Veronica combo. When an Internaut looks for items on a specific topic, dozens and dozens of seemingly duplicate entries may pop up on the screen. And yet the actual documents may differ. Casual researchers will not be able to verify which entries are the most up to date version. The remote chance even exists that some versions may be frauds. What's more, it may be hard to learn the identities of the actual authors or when documents were first electronically published. The Web poses similar problems for serious, library-trained researchers.

Moves, of course, are underway to correct many shortcomings of the Web, Gopher, and other Internet tools for locating and displaying information. Web-browsers such as Mosaic are key here. Via the Web and programs in the Mosaic vein, users can apply a graphical interface to many other resources on the Internet; suddenly the Net can look more like CompuServe or Prodigy and less like a one big UNIXfest. At the same time it should be easier in the future to establish the authenticity of text and other material on the Web. Readers eventually should be able to identify authors, publishers, and dates of publication in a systematic way. Another of the major net tools, WAIS (Wide-Area Information Server) is already geared in some respects to the needs of serious researchers and publishers. But it is harder to use than the Web and Gopher.

Beyond the above problems, all those tools share a trait which is both a flaw and a strength. The accompanying resources are distributed, and potentially each may vanish in a flash; there is no reliable, central library on the Internet, not even of a virtual kind. Granted, wonderful collections do exist of some categories of information. One of the best examples is a project at the University of Michigan, which brings together hundreds of electronic serials. The related E-Text Archive, run by a participant in the CICNet effort, serves up such material as underground magazines and the writings of political activists. The Internet teems with gems of this kind. The Michigan archives are a labor of love and are not under the thumb of Big Brother; material can originate from groups ranging from the Maoist Internationalist Movement to the ultra-capitalist followers of Ann Rand--that is the glory of a distributed system of information. A curse, however, comes with the glory: the Pointer Dilemma. True, an archivist, publisher, or writer might ask sites on the Internet to point only to a certain Gopher or Web site to guarantee authentic, up-to-date documents; but some recalcitrants might ignore the originating site's request. That is Threat A. B is that if everyone pointed and backups did not exist elsewhere, the whole Net would lose if a fire destroyed the hard drives and tapes of the originating server. Of course, Internet sites can mirror parts of each other's disk. But this approach is hardly as consistent or reliable as a virtual central library would make possible. Suppose, too, that a site on the present Web closed for financial purposes, especially if it were a publishing house. The situation is much less tidy than at traditional publishers and libraries. If a paper publisher bellies up, then a book will not vanish into the ether; the work will still be on library shelves.

Besides, traditional librarians and publishers needn't fear, to the same extent, the deterioration or destruction of storage media. Paper book fall apart over time, but libraries are accustomed to this problem. Thousands of electronic books, however, might be lost at once if magnetic and optical media proved less reliable than anticipated, and if a systematic system of monitoring and backups did not exist. Copyright law emphasizes the need to spread knowledge, including that of the past. We need means a good, sound archival system if we are to entrust our electronic books to the new, unproved media--in an era when copyrights are to last for decades.

The potential fragility of e-text illustrates one of the main differences between the worlds of computers and libraries. So does the issue of user friendliness. Computer-oriented people come up with basic building blocks of the new technology such as the Web. Their work is invaluable. But the ethos of computer science, which places a premium on change, prevails above all. Computer museums exist, but as a rule, people in this field are unsentimental about information that can no longer earn its keep. Also, many in comp-sci may esteem performance of their pet hardware or software above all else--even usability to the rest of the world.

Librarians differ starkly. They care more about the permanence and overall friendless of information systems than do most computer professionals. While many library administrations have embraced electronic information retrieval as a nice, neat alternative to paper--and while many librarians thrive on the new complexity--thousands of working librarians are resisting.

Many journalists, too, have balked. Some may just be gadget-fearing holders of liberal arts degrees; others may be mavericks by nature and may worry about repressive uses of the technology. Also, like Baker himself and like many working librarians, they dread the loss of historically valuable material. They are even prepared to defend the old ways partly on aesthetic grounds, as Baker did when he approvingly quoted a Cornell librarian's praise of the "brown and beautiful and round" catalogue at the Library of Congress that "could bring tears to your eyes." The librarian said that her own cards "have to be burned," but it was clear where Baker's sympathies were. He himself longed for Philistines to show more respect for wood- and-cardboard information systems.

Information professionals can at least be grateful that he did not report his present-day Gopher experiences in detail and spend several pages describing the chaos on the Internet. Compared to today's Gopher and Web, electronic card catalogues are models of accuracy and organization. When I searched for librarians' comments on the Baker article, Gopher acted entirely in character. I found not only legitimate items but also such entries as: "This Item has been moved to tape and cannot be accessed via GOPHER. Unable to find the body of requested item 333963. Trying method PNMIASPR PACS--L PAC94086 (FROM 2246 FOR 35 ON IDS 4FF)." And meanwhile Gopher wasted my time on the bogus. I might as well have been searching an old catalogue that forced me to dawdle in front of almost-blank cards.

Nor are expensive databases the ultimate solution for information-seekers like Baker or, for that matter, me. A journalist may end up paying hundreds of dollars to receive articles from Nexis for just one story. Such resources are but a dream to most teachers in elementary and high schools. Besides, many of the commands are just too complex, and even if we rely on collections of collections such as Lexis-Nexis, we may still see knowledge balkanized for business reasons. At least as of this writing, for example, if a researcher wants a comprehensive search to yield full-text versions of New York Times stories, he or she must enrich Lexis-Nexis. The goals of today's commercial databases can clash directly with those of the research community. Businesses pride themselves on offering unique information, while many researchers would love one-stop shopping that was even more inclusive than databases such as Lexis-Nexis and Dialog. Perhaps the original owners of Lexis-Nexis grasped this paradox when they decided to sell their database business.

Certain network-aware librarians, of course, are benefiting from the complexities and wildly differing commands of the Internet and commercial databases. Such chaos is even a form of job security. Under a common scenario, the online world will teem with libraries, and experts will guide civilians to the proper collections. There is some truth in this vision. Even under the plan I am about to describe, the need for such professionals would persist and probably even grow. Intelligent agents will always have limits. And no database will be perfectly logical in every respect to all. Nevertheless, a virtual central database, well organized, is a must if we want to avoid a multidisciplinary Tower of Babel and maybe even convert intelligent skeptics like Baker.

The word "central" appears here with some qualification. Far from killing off the anarchy of the present Internet, we should expand the Net, as a way for researchers to spread knowledge without commercial considerations gnawing away at scholarly ones; as a petri dish for ideas, popular and unpopular; as an alternative for writer and publishers whom censors kept out of the central database. Visionaries designed the Internet to allow packets to be routed around bad connections, and planners of a virtual central database could do likewise to help users circumvent censors by turning instead to the Internet and other paths such as, yes, commercial networks.

This approach would give us the best of several worlds. We could enjoy the order and quality control of a virtual central database, the freedom of the Internet, and the slick packaging of proprietary networks for those who wanted them. The central database could pick up not only direct submissions, but also much of the best technology and content from the Internet, and perhaps share some network resources with the Net.

"Electronic Federalism" is the operative term here, with the U.S. political system very much in mind. Washington is more powerful than each state alone, but it does not run everything. And it freely borrows ideas at times from Montana or New York. The federalism metaphor is not perfect, of course; Internet sites do and should enjoy more freedom from central authority than states and localities do. But the parallels are indeed striking between the electronic and political forms of federalism. Further validating the parallel, the virtual central database need not be just a creature of Washington; instead it could reflect the wishes of many academic and public librarians in many locations. What counts in the end isn't whether one database exists, but where its managers are, and for whom they work.

Moreover, keep in mind the use of the word "virtual" in front of "central database." The information system should not rely on one bank of machines in one city. Computer-oriented subject matter might be physically stored in California, for example, while government-related books might be in Washington, D.C.; and in both cases, librarians across the country could make acquisitions. Other databases could back up the contents of sites focused on specific subjects, with real-time replication used as soon as it was technically feasible. And if universities and other responsible institutions wanted to make copies of their own, so much the better. Moreover, while academic and public librarians would choose the contents of the databases, private companies could own most of the actual physical facilities and lease them to the government--yet another way to diffuse power.

Below is a four-part plan for the above system, TeleRead, which would help students, other readers, writers and the U.S. computer industry, too.[1] It would also save Americans money in the end through its electronic forms capability. What's more, TeleRead would be Big Brother-proof, offering more freedom of expression for writers and more privacy for users than do libraries of the paper era.

PART ONE: Make Powerful, Affordable Computers Available to All

The student-computer ratio in American public schools is about 16-1; imagine a bureaucrat at Agriculture or Exxon sharing a PC with 15 colleagues. So let's start a long-range program to buy portable computers that schools and libraries can lend to students and the public at large. Eventually the schools could even give away TeleReaders to many students from low-income families. By encouraging mass production, the TeleRead program in the future would make computers almost as cheap as calculators, so that middle-class children could buy them without any subsidies.

Using TeleReaders or substitute machines, students would learn word-processors, swap electronic mail, and work with personal databases, spreadsheets and other applications, such as educational software. They and their parents could also use TeleReaders for applications such as electronic forms, community networking, and home shopping. Especially, however, TeleReaders would promote reading, the most vital skill. They would be small, rugged, and affordable and boast sharp, screens that you could read more easily than you could a paper book.

The screens would be flickerless; and you could adjust the size and style of the type, and perhaps the screen colors, too. If you wanted, you might even detach the TeleReader's keyboard and curl up in bed with just the thin, light screen. You could move on to other "pages" or reach other chapters by pressing a button or by touching the appropriate part of the screen with a pen-like device. Knight-Ridder, the newspaper chain, has already described a tablet-style computer that lets readers browse freely through electronic newspapers. And some of the same basic principles could be applied to books. A bar at the bottom of the screen might be divided into sections that each represented chapters or sections thereof. By touching the proper section with the "pen," you could go immediately to the appropriate location in the book you were reading.

Needless to say, the same pen-type device could allow you to wonder more easily through virtual libraries, not just individual books. Many people would rather work with lists of titles, but others might want to zoom in on shelves and then on icons that looked like the spines or covers of real books. In fact, researchers at the University of Maryland have already developed virtual library software that offers the basic capabilities here. Furthermore, the same pen devices could also let you jot notes electronically, or underline or highlight key sentences in books or articles. Too, without a keyboard, you could use the pen device to develop hypertext links within same books or between different ones.[2] You might even be able to split the screen and draw lines between the halves--or thirds--showing different texts.

What about keyboards and alternatives? As a rule today, good typists are far more productive on computers than nontypists are. This may change somewhat, but even then TeleReaders could allow the use of keyboards for those needing them. At the same time we could also provide for other options. The era of practical speech recognition for the mass market is much closer than many would think. Using a TeleReader, you might dictate the bulk of a report and pen in alphanumeric corrections with a stylus; and for original composition or extended clean-up work, yes, if you wanted, you could rely on a keyboard.

Needless to say, we could design the TeleReaders to be comfortable for extended periods of writing--with or without keyboards. You could use a pull-out wire stand to prop up your screen on your desk. In fact, the stand could even help you position the screen at the best angle and height.

Different TeleReaders might serve different needs, with small, plug-in cards used for customization. Many machines might be able to read material aloud in the most natural of voices and highlight the spoken words on screen--one way to help bring books to the very young, the vision-impaired, and the semi-literate. Even early on, we could make TeleReaders with voice recognition to pick up commands from the handicapped. The basic TeleReader, then, might work with many different modules, and besides, this could be multi-vendor program offering many flavors of hardware. TeleReaders could even turn into computer-televisions in the future; but the promotion of literacy should come first. What about printers? Since the screens on TeleReaders would be so good, you normally would not have to print out books or magazines. Why clutter up your house? If need be, however, TeleReaders could work with low-cost inkjets, lasers, or other printers.

TeleRead would not just encourage the production of low-cost portable computers. The program could also make certain that machines were used regularly and well; it could help pay the salaries of computer instructors to bring teachers and librarians up to speed. Let's not turn teachers into programmers, however. Rather, instructors could show teachers how to apply high-tech to their respective disciplines. Teachers in the future should be able to tell students how to write clear, well-organized prose with a word-processor, use spreadsheets, dissect electronic frogs, retrieve facts on a proposed national budget, or send e-mail notes to local members of Congress. And the resources should be there for librarians, as well, to receive the requisite training for the era of digital books.

Praising TeleRead's educational potential, Dr. Vicki Hancock, an educational technology expert at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Virginia, says: "This program would benefit average students as well as gifted ones, and it would better prepare Americans for work in an information-dependent society."

While aiding schools and libraries, the TeleRead program would also be a boon to Silicon Valley and other high-tech areas hit by defense cutbacks. Flat screens, new kinds of memory chips, and other technologies would grow more attractive to our oft-skittish venture investors. TeleRead would not ban the use of foreign parts, but within reason would favor computers with a high American content. Simply put, TeleRead would be a sane alternative to mindless tariffs such as the duties that the United States once slapped on some foreign-made screens for laptops.

Moreover, since the government would buy finished equipment, Washington would not need to set up a big research and development bureaucracy for TeleRead. Rather, the taxpayers could benefit from competition for TeleRead contracts and Silicon Valley could do its own R&D, taking advantage of existing federal programs such as the Defense Department's massive efforts to improve flat-panel displays. What's more, Washington would issue clear-cut standards for equipment, so that many vendors could compete on the basis of price, equipment capabilities, and past performance. A TeleRead agency could encourage small companies to team up with larger ones if doubts existed about their abilities to meet the demands of major contracts. Also to protect the taxpayers, the program would not buy scads of portable computers at once; it would wait until the technology improved enough to justify truly large purchases. Even then, the program could send out Requests for Proposals on an ongoing basis to avoid overcommitment to outdatable technology.

PART II: Set Up a National Database As Soon as Possible

TRnet, part of the TeleRead program, would offer an electronic cornucopia. Like most public libraries, it would normally avoid pay-per-read books. TRnet would be free or would charge low subscription fees based on annual family income, and perhaps included as an option on federal tax forms. The poorest Americans, of course, should be able to dial up TRnet without paying a penny. Think of the I word, consider TRnet an investment in our economic and intellectual development, and use general revenue money to make the network affordable to all.

Reachable from anywhere in the U.S., TRnet would try to carry the full texts of all new books and other publications. How? Material longer than 10,000 words, and intended for publication, would have to be in digital form on TRnet for a copyright to stick.

Existing domestic copyright law would be changed as needed. We mustn't split hair at the expense of creators, so, certainly, exceptions could exist. For instance, if a plagiarist stole from an unfinished novel before the author had a chance to publish it, the writer would still enjoy full protection. So would a writer shopping around for a publisher of a book or article. What's more, originators of informal postings on BBS systems, the Internet, and other networks would not have to register material to enjoy copyright protection.

Some may ask, "Well, what is the difference between formal and informal postings?" The most conspicuous one is that formal material has value added. Only a fraction of items on the Internet have been reviewed by a publisher or a committee of scholarly peers. Commercially and academically, the material is worth less as a rule than is the edited writing in published books and paper journals. It may not be as factual or as easy to digest. What the reader saves in money he or she might make up in time to allow for the raw material's failings.

Even now, in the case of informally posted items, copyright isn't necessarily surrendered. While CD-ROM collections of Internet- related material have reached the market without permission from individual contributors, the legal issues are fuzzier than many would think. For example, if I write an Internet cookbook and am prudent about it, I may have to contact scores of authors of recipes for permission. If anything, TeleRead could somewhat lessen the ambiguities of the present law in favor of creators of informally posted material such as the recipes; should an author and publisher be able to make money off a cookbook without paying a penny for the material of those wanting pay? The formal registration requirement, however, would indeed apply to publishers and writers who deemed their work to be ready for formal publication. If someone copy-protected an e-book and were about to offer it for sale in a polished format, then clearly the person would need to register.

What about undigitized articles? If the material were shorter than 10,000 words, then scanners could pick up the images, either for conversion to computer text or as pictures to be dialed up on TRnet. Video or audio material--whether TV series or radio broadcasts--would require registration with TeleRead. Unlike e-books, however, it would not necessarily need to be posted on TRnet itself. Instead, copyright holders would supply brief descriptions and ordering information--similar to what the Vanderbilt archive provides for people desiring to track down old news programs.

Maybe video and audio material from commercial sources like Paramount or CBS might be part of TeleRead's actual collection someday, but not at the start. Movie properties and the like would cost more to buy than books do, and the written word is normally the most efficient way to impart knowledge. So while films and tapes would need to be registered, they would not be available for free as books might be. (Pointers, of course, could eventually guide you from TeleRead to the video and audio databases of the commercial providers such as TV networks.)

Washington would phase in the registration requirement with a voluntary program. Technophobic publishers would have plenty of time to learn to convert their material to the proper format. To make these massive but needed changes possible within copyright law, the United States would work closely with other countries. Already TeleRead is in keeping with the Berne Convention's intent to protect creators; as explained later, most writers would fare much better under TeleRead than under the present system. Still, TeleRead should be within the letter of international law, not just the spirit, and the solution is obvious: change the laws.

The task isn't so formidable as it might seem. The whole world is asking the same questions that we in the United States are: Just how can society compensate creators fairly and also make information affordable to rich and poor alike? And what to do about the flow of intellectual property across national borders by way of computer networks? With TeleRead-style arrangements to discourage piracy, might it not be easier to guard against the international variety? As carrots to respect copyright law, wealthy countries could help poorer ones develop TeleRead-style libraries over the years. Indeed, an international electronic peace corps might be started to improve telecommunications infrastructures, enable nations to share technical knowledge, and work on other communications--related goals that advanced such basics as agriculture and public health.[3] Developing countries will never respect the intellectual property of wealthy nations unless the latter offer suitable incentives.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, debates are also heating up over the technologies that information networks could employ to transmit books and other material. No single solution needs to prevail. TRnet could use old-fashioned phone lines, fiber optic cables, or radio, whatever cost the least. No matter what the technology, the results would be impressive. The Great Gatsby could reach you in a fraction of the time it took to watch a rerun of "I Love Lucy."

Before you hooked into TRnet, you would answer a series of easy questions to pinpoint exactly what you needed. Your might punch in the name of an author, dial up the network and instantly get a list of all of the author's works, with quick descriptions. Then the TeleReader would disconnect you from the network. At your leisure, without tying up the phone lines, you would go on to choose which books you wanted sent into your computer when you logged on a second time. This would often be the scenario at the start. More and more, however, especially in areas with cable TV lines used for computers, users would be able to stay online hour after hour at much less expense than now.

Even then, of course, TeleRead could minimize the amount of time needed to find information. You could select books not only by author, but also by publishers, your own pre-designated groups of publishers, editor, general category, subject, search words, geographical setting, academic level, the number of retrievals, time of publication, or other criteria or combinations of criteria. If you were a sixth--grader curious about airplanes, you would not be swamped by hundreds or thousands of titles; you could limit your searches just to books for your age group. And if you were in high school and keyed in "Washington" and "novels," you would see everything from Democracy to Washington, D.C. Then if you added the word "black literature" to your search, you could call up Afro-American fiction from the local writers.

Inner-city teachers could easily track down books that meant thousands of times more to bright teenagers than anything on television. In fact, they could tailor reading assignments to individual children. Electronic indexes needn't be the only technique with which TeleRead might eventually direct users to the right material. You might also browse through images of books covers, or at least well-designed lists of books; just as at real libraries, serendipity could reign supreme. And what better way to foster serendipity and curiosity than hypertext? You could highlight a word or phrase and be referred to another place in a text, or even to another book or article. Clearly TeleRead could benefit from much of the same technology found today on the Web, which, in fact, might serve as a testbed.

TeleRead would also go beyond indexing and hypertext alone and use intelligent agents, sometimes described as electronic butlers. Intelligent agents could prowl networks, looking for material of greatest interest to you, even while you slept. As telecommunications costs shrank, the agents could grow in importance. Certainly if we trusted agent-style software to ferret out books for us, a centralized subscription arrangement such as TeleRead would make more sense than a motley series of collections from providers of often-pricey information. What if an agent accidentally downloaded megabyte after megabyte of material from a commercial library that charged outrages fees? Or suppose that an agent-created summary misled you into thinking that an expensive e-book was much more valuable to you than it actually was. A truly centralized TRnet with low-cost, flat-fee subscription rates would end such risks.

Although I have mentioned books and article in examples, TRnet could carry educational software, too, from which teachers and students could choose the best programs for them. Math and science students could especially benefit. And young immigrants could use software rich in moving images and synthesized speech to help learn English. In addition, TRnet might carry business and entertainment programs from people who now distribute their work as shareware. Let the software community help decide if TeleRead should include shareware of a noneducaitonal nature. Certainly, given the high rate of piracy at many schools, TeleRead should cover educational software at the very least.

Educational videos also might be included eventually, and perhaps digitally transmitted radio programs of National Public Radio or similar networks. If NPR wanted, it could send out computer files of "All Things Considered" to be retrieved at the recipients' convenience. (A private service called Internet Radio already offers digitized interviews for technically oriented people. The service even features a "Geek of the Week" spot.)

Moreover, TeleRead might also offer electronic reproductions of art. That is exactly what the Library of Congress is already trying in a small way through a noteworthy experiment on the Web and on the America Online service. Multi-media experts at the Library look forward to the time when people at home could routinely take virtual--reality tours through great art galleries of the world.

The main purpose of TRnet, though, should be to preserve the written word. So often it is the best way to pass on detailed instructions, tell stories, and convey abstract idea and feelings. Powerful interests are aggressively promoting the growth of multi-media; now we need TeleRead to protect the survival of text. Whatever the medium, TRnet would pay fairly. For example, software houses or independent programmers would receive fees based essentially on the number of times the public dialed up their creations. And the same arrangement could apply to individual articles from newspapers and other publications. When writers kept rights to the articles, then payment would go to them.

TRnet would allow publications a delay--maybe four weeks for daily newspapers and sixteen weeks for monthly periodicals--before the network posted issues online for all to see. The online editions could be highly customized for individual subscribers, just as some experts now foresee. These electronic periodicals could even offer interactive ads through which subscribers could order merchandise, which TeleReaders eventually would be able to display in color and with moving images.

Newspapers and magazines could run not only their normal ads but also "AdLinks" to archives with further information about goods or services. Ad-focused newsgroups are already sprouting on Usenet, while electronic malls have proliferated on the World Wide Web. Publishers could rent out AdLinks from their electronic publications to these areas and equivalents, which, in the future, could offer lively, specialized editorial matter to encourage reader s to visit. Such areas could even take the form of imaginary online worlds. Witness MCI's recent creation of a fictitious publisher online, to which readers can submit manuscripts and send e-mail messages to the imaginary characters. The next step, logically y, would be entertaining games in which people used virtual versions of the advertised products to win prizes. Ad areas--or AdWorlds--would be to electronics periodicals what independently published Sunday supplements are to present-day newspapers, except that they could be much more narrowly targeted for the appropriate readers.

Simply put, nonintrusive advertising online could be just as lucrative as ads in traditional newspapers and magazines and maybe even more so. What's more, unlike traditional periodicals, the electronic versions could offer readers the choice of paying extra to avoid ads. Electronic periodicals could rely directly on phone companies and cable systems to speed current editions to paid subscribers, but often TRnet might make more sense. Understandably, many newspapers see phone companies as rival publishers. Suppose, however, that telecommunications firms signed long-term contracts with TRnet; then the network could act as a buffer between them and the newspapers that subleased the lines at discount rates. The almost-made merger of Bell Atlantic and TCI is just one more example of the need for TRnet to protect newspapers and other information providers while at the same time treating telcom companies fairly.

What about TRnet's compensation for professional writers of books and for their publishers? Authors could sell to TRnet directly, or, armed with this new bargaining power, they could sign contracts with publishers. Without heavy production and distribution costs, writers' pay would be far better. Under TeleRead, writers and publishers would earn fees based on how often people retrieved books, and on other criteria such as length and subject matter. Publishers could set advances by the expected number of dial-ups. Outside business people could pay authors and publishers for rights to anticipated dial-up fees; let Wall Street invest in literary futures.

Yes, if TRnet gouged readers, then the public would bootleg books electronically and cheat authors, publishers, and literary investors; but if network use were free or low cost, piracy just would not be worth the trouble. Electronic books especially demand protection of this nature. Aging better than most newspaper and magazine, they can be excellent prey for bootleggers. Even paper books will no longer be safe in the future. The Authors Guild has protested against an experimental photocopier from a Japanese company. The troublesome machine can automatically turn pages of a book. With a scanner, the machine could be able translate a long book into ASCII within hours. Mary Pope Osborne, Guild President, complained to SIMBA Media Daily: "An infringer could then post the electronic version on the Internet, where thousands of illegal copies could be made."

Beyond making legal copies too cheap to justify illegal ones, TeleRead could rely on a protection scheme similar to those proposed for pay-per-read. In other words, the books and other material would be spread all over creation. But you could not read the text in full without a decryption device that used up "credits" that you obtained by modem. All this sounds like pay-per-read--or pay-per-download, as some p-p-r advocates might prefer to call it. But a major difference would exist. The credits would be free. You would amass them whenever you logged on to record your past downloads of material. And just as in pay-per-read schemes, the reporting would be painless and automatic, through a quick modem call to a central reporting bureau.

Under such a plan, most people would not need to dial up TeleRead books directly from the virtual central database; instead they would log onto the servers of local and university libraries, and of Internet providers. Libraries could offer their own hypertext links to material in the virtual central database. So could individual professors, even, customizing the reading for Sociology 101 or Philosophy 212. And, of course, so could Net providers and other businesses. Services such as CompuServe could sell additional value-added features; they could start online conferences centered on TeleRead books and authors, for example, as well as sell fresh articles from newspapers and magazines. Remember, TeleRead would not provide new articles from commercial publications for free.

The new Interchange Online Network started by Ziff-Davis is a good example of the potential for the private sector to add value. If you retrieve a news story on Interchange, you may benefit not only from links to other articles, but also from links to downloaded files and a related forum. Moreover, if the virtual central database ever were to censor a book, there would be nothing to prevent services such as Interchange from offering it on their own. In fact, censored works might even enjoy extra appeal on the commercial side. Meanwhile, commercial services from CompuServe to local BBS would be earning money from books already in the database.

Online services wouldn't be the only businesses able to benefit from TeleRead's databases. Bookstores and copy shops could print out material distributed on the network. The book industry has long talked about paper books on demand as a way to reduce inventory problems. TRnet might electronically transmit eye-appealing covers and page layouts; and with the high-resolution color printers of the future, these books-on-demand could win over even the most die-hard technophobes. Each time a store downloaded a book, the author or publisher would receive a dial-up fee as if a reader had logged on to TRnet directly. Metering devices, perhaps tested at random by Washington, would keep track of the number of copies printed out. But since the stores were obtaining the material so inexpensively from TeleRead, they would lack much temptation to cheat.

What about cheating by contributors to the database, however? Could the unscrupulous type their names over and over again, go on for 60,000 words, and have friends dial these nonbooks at public expense? Unlikely. Anyone could post almost anything on TRnet, after storage costs dropped sufficiently; but professional librarians or committees, each working within limits on the number of books selected, could help decide which works merited royalties from the national library. The librarians would be at national, state, and local levels; and they would regularly monitor a central database for new submissions in their specialties.

After a certain number of dial-ups, almost any book or program could earn fees regardless of the wishes of the librarians. Moreover, writers and publishers would also be able to bypass librarians by gambling a certain amount of money up front to reduce the number of dial-ups required for royalties. The TeleRead laws might require TRnet to reserve maybe a quarter or third of its acquisitions budget for "bypass books," as I'll call them: books that librarians did not approve. By raising or lowering the fees charged authors or publishers, the network could help control the total bypass expenditures. De-escalating royalties on the very biggest best-sellers, and only on them, would also keep a lid on costs. Even those limits, in fact, might not be necessary if Lloyd's-of-London-style risk pools from the private side were used to cushion the library system against expensive surprises.

TeleRead could reduce costs, as well, by encouraging copyright registrants to do much of the work themselves. For example, publishers of popular-level books could build in links to specialized works that writers used in research. If TeleRead's librarians considered the links to be useful, the publishers or writers might receive higher compensation than otherwise.

So what would TeleRead's expenses total? To be hypothetical, suppose we could immediately put all paper books and some other material on TRnet.

When I researched this question in 1993, my tentative estimates added up to $30.05 billion:

  • $10 billion for online books, which would be more appropriate than the less than $5 billion that book publishers most likely spend on writers and editorial employees today. The $5 billion is my estimate based on a book industry study and on informal talks with publishing authorities. In a nation with a Gross Domestic Product of more than $6 trillion a year, it is an outrage that so little now goes for editorial expenses associated with books.

[Contrast the $5 billion with the good fortune of the computer industry. In one 12-month period around 1994, Hewlett-Packard earned $1.6 billion in profit off $25 billion in sales--just HP by itself, not the whole industry. The point here is not that H-P should earn less; rather, that society isn't spending as much on books and other content as it should. Quality suffers in the fight over the crumbs. Our publishing system has given us textbooks that scramble historical dates and even a few cookbooks whose recipes can poison unwary gourmets or explode in the oven. While sending more money in the direction of writers, TeleRead would also help good publishers. Yes, writers could publish directly. But decent publishing houses that added value--for example, through editing and intelligent promotion--would also thrive.]

  • $0 for fresh editions of newspapers and magazines--including academic journals--since TRnet would be a mere conduit in those cases. TRnet would simply drive down the cost of communications and allow readers to access the new material more easily.
  • $5 billion for past editions and old articles. That's a fifth of the approximately $25 billion that American readers paid each year for newspapers and the magazines around 1993, according to Commerce Department figures. Adding to TeleRead's appeal for publishers, the library versions of electronic periodicals could feature automatically updated links to current advertisements. The editorial content of a two-year-old electronic newspaper would be the same as the original, but the ads would be today's.
  • $50 million for articles and papers that TRnet bought directly. As any professional writer or academic can tell you, some of the most valuable writing will never find readers because it is outside the commercial or academic formats of existing publications. Granted, thousands of Americans would upload material to TRnet without counting on financial rewards. But TRnet could at least hold out a slim possibility of pay. The amount of money in this category would be kept small, so that TRnet was not competing with commercial newspapers and magazines.
  • $3 billion for educational software, or about three times the amount that schools and families now spend if you extrapolate from statistics of the Software Publishers Association.
  • $2 billion for computers for libraries, schools and some low--income people, and some computer training programs for librarians and teachers. A billion dollars could buy a million TeleReaders at $1,000 each, or, eventually, 10 million computers at $100 each. Again, however, the idea is not to give every American a machine, but rather to spur production of good, affordable portables for reading. Skillful jaw-boning by politicians--not just a just a procurement program--could work miracles. The Valley would be much more likely to produce TeleRead-style machines if Washington spoke up. Without this mix of talk and focused procurement by the Valley's largest customer, the industry will remain too oriented toward entertainment and not enough toward enlightenment.
  • $10 billion for staffers, telecommunications and leasing of computer facilities. Many would consider the $10 billion to be far high. I've tried to err on the cautious side, extrapolating from figures for present online services, which lack TeleRead's economies of scale. Staff costs would be low since TRnet would rely mostly on existing librarians, who are already accustomed to choosing books for public use.

Telecommunications might well be the biggest cost. Rather than squandering tax money on rapidly outdatable technology, the government could rely on cable systems and private phone companies. As much as possible, TeleRead could take advantage of the nooks and crannies of existing networks. The system might even offer bargain subscriptions to user willing to dial up their books outside peak times. Also, TeleRead could lease private computer facilities to avoid technolock (technolock: n. A tendency of many large bureaucracies to keep using antique equipment to justify past investment).

The hypothetical $30.05 billion total is about two percent of the federal government's 1993 budget, or around half a percent of the Gross Domestic Product. What's more, Washington could scale down a pilot project to suit a national mood of austerity. The actual first-year expenses of TeleRead's database and related activities could be in the tens of millions, and perhaps much less. Only a minority of Americans would sign up in the beginning if we limited the first users to public domain material and specialized books and articles of a scientific, technical, medical or educational nature.

Moreover, as suggested by an acquaintance of mine, the program could include only older books at the start--works that publishers otherwise would simply remainder. And of course it could be voluntary for the publishers at first. Modest subscriptions fees, maybe $50-$100 per year for an average family, could help pay for this scaled-down program. In addition, we could reduce initial expenses by using existing resources on the Internet as much as possible. Areas of the Web might be excellent as a testbed not just for the electronic books but also for the electronic forms. Let a lean TeleRead sell itself. Then, as the economy picked up and reading computers grow more powerful, support would grow for an expanded program.

Of course, an early TeleRead could avoid subscription requirements and metering of any kind and simply put material on the Web to encourage hardware vendors to spend more R&D money on equipment for reading electronic books in style. Counting WWW accesses wouldn't be as precise a measurement for compensation purposes. But it would reduce technical requirements at this early stage.

PART III: Cost-Justify TeleRead By Encouraging the Use of TeleReaders For Government-Related Paperwork and for Commerce

Many in the public interest community love the idea of taking money from rich users of high-tech services to pay for the database requirements of the poor. User-to-user subsidies are laudable for purposes such as assuring universal telephone service. However, this regulatory model is wrong in a database context.

The money just will not be there. Subsidizing databases is different from subsidizing phone service. If our schools are fair to the children of the poor, their database needs will be too extensive and too unpredictable. The rich will give up only so much to the youngsters from poor and working-class families. Meanwhile, demographic trends will only worsen the problem; in California, for example, well-off white people hate to spend money on schools and libraries for black, brown, and yellow-skinned children.

Given the increases expected in minority populations, California could be a forerunner for many other states. And what applies to tax money will apply to user-to-user subsidies; and despite all the Robin Hood talk, the poor will only lose in the end.

Suppose, however, that we use a new model. What if high-tech can transfer resources from bureaucracy to knowledge?

Visit a government office, and you'll see batteries of clerks typing away, tapping out data from citizens and businesses. What a waste. Paperwork is not just expensive for the government; it diverts citizens from more productive activities. But let's say you could fill out smart forms on TeleReaders or equivalent machines, then send the information over the phone lines--directly to government computers. Easy-to-use software could guide you as you worked on your taxes or otherwise engaged in an official transaction.

These programs would be no dummies. You would supply the relevant facts about your family or business, and then the software would tailor the questions to you and discard irrelevant ones. Perhaps you could even switch on a synthesized voice--if you wanted--to reinforce the instructions you saw on the screen. What's more, the programs might tie in with commercial software meeting official specs, so that, for example, you would not have to re-enter items from your electronic checkbook (perhaps downloaded from another computer). Indeed private industry could supply "TeleForm" programs of its own for people not wanting to use the official software. Corporations already have come up with tax software; but TeleRead would encourage the development of programs that were much more easy to use.

Public or private, the software would let you know how it toted up your taxes--and let you change any entry if you disagreed. The Internal Revenue Service might challenge your return later on, but at least you would still enjoy just as much control over the tax form as you do now.

Working with these TeleForms, we would all come out ahead. We would spend less time and money keeping the government happy. Small businesses, especially, would welcome the reduction in paperwork, which is as much a cost of government as taxes themselves are. And the bureaucracies could more easily digest the information--without any need to rekey it, and with less need to pester citizens about errors or missing facts. Moreover, TeleRead's forms would be well enough structured to encourage more responsive answers. Too, since TeleReaders would use pen interfaces, not just keyboards, citizens could even sign tax papers and augment digital identification the old-fashioned way.

Tax forms are just one example of how TeleRead could help Americans in areas besides reading. What about Social Security forms? Software could deal with all kinds of "ifs" when Americans applied for benefits. We could reduce the staffs of hundreds of local Social Security offices--doing this slowly over a period of time to cushion effects on workers.

Similarly, government at all levels could use "TeleForms" to handle matters ranging from drivers licenses to unemployment compensation, health-care claims, and applications for government-backed loans. What's more, e-forms and databases could help match up workers and jobs in a truly massive but cost-effective way. Imagine the benefits for small business.

Computerized forms, of course, are hardly a revolutionary idea.[4] Even now, with inexpensive software, you can create a paper tax-return or even an application to work for the government. And the IRS has experimented with electronic filing of returns from ordinary citizens directly--not just from tax-preparation firms. IRS also plans to spend a fortune on scanners to pick data from paper returns. But direct filing by computer is the future, and TeleRead would dramatically advance such goals. What's more, via government-related databases, TeleRead could also contribute to knowledge about government. But that is not all. With a tax system built around electronic forms, you could much more easily plug in facts from a tax proposal in Congress and see how it would affect you.

TeleRead would aid not only government transactions but also those on the consumer side, such as the home shopping so dear to the television industry--a variant of which is already developing on the World Wide Web.

[White Rabbit Toys in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is one of my favorite examples of Net businesses of the kind that TeleRead would benefit by providing more eyes, more prospective customers, through better hardware. Already you can use the Net to order cranberries and other goodies from New England Country Cupboard in Weymouth, Massacusetts--or hand-made quits from Bess Anni's Crafts on Kifer Hill Road in Penn, Pennsylvania--or gaze at pictures of homes offered by JME Realty in Gulf Breeze, Florida. For links to dozens of cybermalls click here.]

More than a few people think of data highways in terms of Macy's online, 500 channels, "Terminator" films on demand, and the other pinnacles of modern civilization. And yet we need machines to promote literacy. How to reconcile the two visions and cost-justify TeleRead still more?

Suppose, however, that we could buy some TeleReaders with radio links to remote boxes on our televisions or to circuitry in the TVs themselves. Imagine. We could actually use the forms capability of the TeleReaders to program the televisions and to order airplane tickets, pizzas, designer clothes, and the rest. The ordering mechanisms would work with the TeleReaders alone or in conjunctions with television sets. Yes, people could reach for tiny remote controls to scoot from channel to channel. But when they wanted to record future programs, configure their TVs in intricate ways, or order merchandise, movies and the rest, their TeleReaders would help out.

People could enjoy instantly downloaded smart forms and benefit from a wonderful, pen-style interface. Consider the fashion industry. Recently the New York Times quoted an expert as saying that it could be a decade before people tried clothes on virtual versions of themselves on computers screens. But with TeleRead, such wizardry might happen much sooner; the pen-style interface would easily allow consumers to specify the right colors, measurements , and the like. PCMCIA-style cards could add the necessary radio-frequency links to TeleReaders, other computers, and the set-box boxes.

None of these devices would not need to come with the links unless they were desired. But many if not most people might want the links eventually. With them, TeleReaders could control TVs in fancy multimedia applications that used televisions more as computers than as idiot boxes. The same radio links with the televisions could be one of the ways used to download books and narrow-bandwidth educational software into TeleReaders themselves.

Intellectual snobbery notwithstanding, the radio links to the televisions would not lessen the value of TeleReaders for reading, writing, government forms, civic and educational networking, and other serious uses. Quite the contrary. Not only could the links be used with TV but also for exchanging material in the classroom, including copyrighted works--with an appropriate reporting system, as described earlier in this proposal.

Furthermore, TeleRead's radio links could be used in some business applications, too, especially video conferencing. An executive someday could work with just a tiny camera and a TeleReader nearby--and use the latter to tweak charts and otherwise control images on a huge wall-mounted screen. On top of everything else, TVs or other large devices could offer auxiliary storage or backup for TeleReaders. And they could also house printers for consumers wanting them--either to print articles or other material such as coupons for shoppers.

Clearly, then, the TeleRead vision could co-exist well with a TV-based one at home and in the office. The philosophy of the plan is to make book-friendly machines attractive to as many people as possible. If TV links or teleputer-style TeleReaders furthered this goal, society would benefit. TeleReaders could remain valuable for the original uses. We simply need to keep our national priorities in mind: text mustn't suffer in a teleputer age. The sharpness and dimensions of the TeleReader screens themselves should remain optimal for reading, writing, electronic forms, and computer networking---a goal not met by most television designs. So, for the moment, we should think of TeleReaders as separate machines, not replacements for traditional sets.

PART IV: Consciously Work to Keep Big Brother Out of TeleRead

Electronic Federalism--and the strengthening of the Internet, along with value-added opportunities for CompuServe-style services and local BBS systems--would one means to promote the freedom of ideas and avoid the tyranny of a government monopoly. Commercialization of the Internet would help greatly. The more the planners of the Internet geared up for high-bandwidth, business-related applications, the more cheaply the Net would transmit low-bandwidth material such as list mail and electronic books. The only proviso here is that precautions be taken to assure that the commercial side would pay its true costs. Balance should be the goal. A national library would be less vulnerable to the tacky marketplace values that so often dominate popular culture, and that might distort academic and scientific literature.

On the other hand, private information providers are needed to expose abuses of government and to avoid bureaucratic rigidity. That is why the book side of TeleRead should allow publishers to gamble money up front and pay for the inclusion of controversial books in the national library if TeleLibrarians did not chose their offerings. It is also why the virtual central database ideally would be able to handle newspaper and magazine ads, not just editorial matter. The old cliche is true--advertising is indeed the mother's milk of newspapers--and if we did not let newspapers support themselves, then we would throw the balance between government and press out of kilter.

In other ways, too, TeleRead would guard against Big Brother. Orwell's bureaucrats rewrote old stories in the London Times to suit the whims of the moment; but that would be inherently impossible under TeleRead. The same technical precautions used to safeguard data would also serve as political precautions. Questions still exist about the permanence of various storage methods, and with that in mind, TeleRead might provide for constant backups on read-only media of different kinds--and constant monitoring of the integrity of the material at different locations.

Helping, too, would be the use of different contractors to run databases, not just the use of many librarians at different locations. With so many people involved, and with an Internet-style, anti-censorship ethos, bureaucratic meddling with old material would be impossible. Contractors might even be required to monitor the integrity of rivals' databases. Moreover, TeleRead could hasten the coming of machines for the masses that eventually included enough storage to preserve almost everything that users dialed up. So no changes could be made to books in the central database without the risk of howls from thousands of Americans.

Still another safeguard would be for TeleRead to be an independent agency with long-range funding, or, at the very least, a part of the Library of Congress that was as insulated as much as possible from political influence. TeleRead's directors could be appointed for long terms. Yet another way to preserve free expression would be to allow parents to restrict the information choices of young children. That sounds paradoxical and may even violate the professional codes of some library groups. But think of it from this perspective: Most book censorship takes places in the name of child-protection; and by allowing parents to choose books for their children, much of the wind would be taken out of the sails of censors here in the United States and abroad.

If nothing else, it should be emphasized TeleRead would not prevent controversial books from being published online through other means than the virtual central database. Links could exist from the virtual central database to books that did not show up there with full text. If the database did not include those links, then it is safe to say that some enterprising business people would put together a link collection to banned books--many of which, due to their controversial nature, would move briskly. We go back to the old hacker's rule about the Internet: we can route around censorship the same as we can around a broken telephone line.

Freedom of expression could flourish in another way under TeleRead; readers in every city could dial up virtually every book. The dirty secret of U.S. libraries is that despite all the talk about freedom to read, their shelves reflect just the taste of local librarians and their publics. In Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, which boasts one of the nation's largest public library systems, I cannot find not a single item by the late Saul Alinsky--among the country's most notable community organizers. The neglect of Alinsky's writings is not censorship per se. But the effect is the same.

Beside assuring a truly national audience for books of all kinds, TeleRead should increase privacy for all readers. If the program charged nothing or just flat subscription fees, there would be no need to keep permanent records on the reading choices of individuals. When you retrieved a controversial political work--in fact, anything--your machine would tell TRnet to pay the author or publisher. But the central computers would be programmed to forget your personal selections in a week or two.

TRnet would keep the temporary records only as a way to guard against constant dial-ups by those profiting off them. Constant audits would help discourage illegal use of such records.

For the really worried, private companies such as Barnes & Noble could set up vending machines that would accept old-fashioned, untraceable paper money as well as nameless debit cards. The machines would copy books onto a tiny memory card that plugged into your computer and held many volumes. Bearing bright logos, such machines could be a fixture at malls, airports and other public areas. They could serve both the privacy-minded and people who just did not want to become regular subscribers. Revenue would go both to TRnet and operators of the vending machines.

The possibility even exists that with enough protection against fraud, TeleRead could use nameless, debit-style cards without any money involved. Citizens could not receive new cards from the private contractors' machines unless they reported past usage, via the old cards they turned in. Still another possibility would be the use of private companies--selected from among certified possibilities by individual citizens--to serve as buffers and isolate individual accounts from government scrutiny.

Needless to say, TeleRead's forms capabilities, not just the library features, should respect privacy. Like it or not, the move in government is to automate and consolidate as many databases as possible. TeleRead has a major privacy advantage over some other approaches. Certain officials have been talking about just one card to serve many needs and streamline citizens' dealings with the government.

That could mean that government databases would exchange information even more often than they do today, increasing the privacy danger. TeleRead, however, would give more processing power over to individual citizens, so that, for example, they could more easily handle their own tax returns; they would not have to entrust as much raw data as otherwise to the IRS.

* * *

Even with financial benefits galore and Constitutional protections, skeptics might dismiss TeleRead and its TRnet as socialistic; but they are not, any more than a public library. If Andrew Carnegie--the 19th-century capitalist extraordinaire--were alive today, he would be probably be funding demonstration projects, just as he helped small-town libraries across the United States, hoping that ambitious Americans could use the technology of the day to better themselves. And if we could break down barriers between experts and the rest of us, and if even the technophobes at The New Yorker could understand the Web--well, then, so much the better.

David H. Rothman, a writer in Alexandria, Virginia, testified on TeleRead before the Working Group on Intellectual Property of the Information Policy Committee of the National Information Infrastructure Task Force. Rothman is author of NetWorld! (Prima Publishing, 1996) and other computer-related books. He may be reached at


[1] TeleRead is an evolving proposal. Related writings by its author have appeared in "Information access for all," Computerworld, July 6, 1992, page 77; "Americans Could Dial Up Books from Home--and Help U.S. Industry," Baltimore Sun, August 9, 1992, Perspective section, Page 4G; and The World at Your Fingertips," Washington Post Education Review, April 4, 1993, Page 5. TeleRead has also been discussed in other articles such as "The TeleRead Proposal," by Billy Barron, in the Internet Society Newsletter and also "TRnet: A Possible Use of the Internet," by Barron, in ConneXions, The Interoperability Report, Page 25, December 1993, and William F. Buckley, Jr., endorsed the TeleRead concept in his "On the Right" column of May 17, 1993. For a different vision of the nation's information needs, see A Preliminary Draft of the Report of the Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights, dated July 1994, from the Information Infrastructure Task Force. TeleRead, while treating creators fairly, would attend to the needs of the public for low-cost knowledge. But if enacted into law, the NII document, also known as "The Green Paper," in effect could prevent public libraries from distributing copyrighted electronic library books via networks to patrons at home. Ironically the NII proposal would even hurt many creators--especially authors of serious nonfiction books--who need free or at least affordable access to a wide variety of materials.

[2] Planners ideally could design TeleRead with many and perhaps virtually all of the hypertext related wrinkles of Ted Nelson's Xanadu publishing system. At the same time TeleRead would offer a much more comprehensive collection of works than Xanadu would. Nelson is far, far too sanguine about the willingness of writers and publishers to participate in his project. TeleRead would require electronic books to be made available to a national library--while providing for fair compensation to writers, as well as to publishing houses that added value.

[3] The Electronic Peace Corps proposal was published in the Washington Post and other major newspapers approximately a decade ago. For a more refined version, see "Building an Electronic Peace Corps," International Health News, Page 4, November, 1987. The proposal is mentioned as an option in a report from the Office of Technology Assessment, Perspectives on the Role of Science and Technology in Sustainable Development, Page 55, September 1994.

[4] As noted, government officials have grown increasingly aware of the economies of automated transactions with citizen-taxpayers. But the Clinton Administration still does not fully appreciate the need to get the appropriate equipment into the hands of citizenry, not just civil servants. The most hilarious example of the need involves an Administration-promoted group called Americans Communicating Electronically.

ACE went on national TV and asked Americans to send in e-mail. But not one electronic reply came that year from half a dozen states, among them the computer-poor state of Arkansas--President Clinton's home territory. It's time for Washington to catch up with the private sector. Federal Express , for example, will supply computers to regular customers who ship as few as several packages a day (click here to learn about FedEx's Internet-based tracking system--a splendid example of the kind of commercial transactions that TeleRead would facilitate through better hardware and software). While this is not a proposal for Washington to furnish us all computers, it's clear that DC is frittering away billions each year by not using a TeleRead program to promote computer use.