Manifest DestinE: Trailblazing Across the Digital Frontier

By Michael J. Lambert

Can there be a library without books? Bexar County thinks yes.

Officials there are experimenting with a bookless public library appropriately named BiblioTech that offers e-readers and computers to its patrons in lieu of hardcopies.  Planned for the south side of San Antonio, the start-up cost estimate is around $1.5 million, markedly less than the nearly $4 million spent annually in the county on other library services.  Logistically, there is trepidation in having to cooperate with publishers to keep digital book prices low, but the situation continues to improve each year.  In all, the effective cost to open and maintain an all-digital library when compared to the costs for a conventional one makes a compelling case for adopting new practices that seek to streamline processes as this enables more people to have quicker and cheaper access to information they need.

Such experimentation to find something better is uniquely American. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued his now distinguished thesis that the exploratory and innovative nature that defines American character was influenced and developed by the pioneering experiences of the nineteenth century frontier.  Combined with the opportunity of landing on an untouched and untamed shore, a new identity of discovery and innovation was cultivated that remains an integral part of Americanism.  It is this same spirit that now propels us into the digital age as we forge ahead to new frontiers.  With the advent of becoming more technologically erudite as a society, unique brands of innovation quickly become commonplace and each new frontier of digital progress shapes how we live our lives and interact with one another.

In that light, what the county officials in Texas did was right: identify what they consumer required and find the cheapest, most effective method of delivering it to them.  Granted, this was the business of the local government but the principle of satisfying a market gap remains the same.  In accordance with the laws of creative destruction, any entity that fails to adapt with regard to digital technology could likely be dissolved themselves to make room for the next innovation.

Another example of this would be what online streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify are doing to the entertainment industry.  With the Internet, it is now much easier to have access to television, film and music that would otherwise be available as an expensive, bundled package.  This way, consumers can elect precisely how and when they use these new services.  Cable and music companies are now forced to address remaining competitive in a market that is becoming more oriented toward instantaneousness and customer satisfaction.

And this progress builds on its own success.  Every downloaded album is one taken away from the record store and the postal service becomes more obsolete with each email sent.  Digital cameras make self-developing film cameras seem ancient while cell phones have been encroaching on digital camera territory for years.

The question then becomes how does one regulate new and unforeseen innovations or should they be regulated at all.  Since these new innovations interact in something of a wild west, the immediate response tends to be more centralized rules and restrictions that seek to either stifle competition or protect the consumer.  In the end, these policies almost always cause opposite reactions with regard to their intentions.  However complex the notion is, the evidence suggests that businesses that wish to stay open try to avoid legislation and simply police themselves as it makes a much better policy for the customer’s sake.  As with the library inTexas, where there is a market demand, someone will eventually meet it so there is no sense in handcuffing yourself to deleterious regulation.

For the time being, digital innovation has reached a new valley of technological expansion waiting to be explored.  Until the day comes when that progress plateaus, it is crucial that the market be left unencumbered so as to foster the latest and exciting technologies of tomorrow.