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I’m having a stab at learning Dreamweaver, Adobe’s complex and sophisticated website design system. And in idle moments, I’m asking myself why I should be doing this.

I think I know why.

It’s not just that I enjoy learning new software. It’s not just that I’m the new webmaster for Friends of the Livermore Library and may need to know more about web development than I do now. It has more to do with a line from a Buffalo Springfield song — “Somethin’s happenin’ here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Something is indeed happening here, and I don’t think any of us yet knows exactly what it is, or what it will become. What is becoming clear to me is that the Internet — or, to be more specific, the Web — is at least as fundamental a change in how people disseminate and access information as the invention of the printing press.

A. J. Liebling, who wrote for The New Yorker, said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” But that was in 1961 or thereabouts. The ability to disseminate information to the public was not restricted to people who owned presses — you could own a radio station or a television station — but it required, in any case, an enormous capital investment.

Today, the required investment has shrunk by at least three orders of magnitude. Buy a modest computer ($1,000 or so), a fast Internet connection ($25 per month), and space on a server (another $20 per month, or less), and you have your own printing press. Getting anyone to read your stuff is a separate problem, but what you write is available to be read. If writing is too much trouble, skip the space on a server and upload videos of your craftily considered babbling to YouTube.

That’s revolutionary enough, but it’s only part of the story. The Web is also changing the manner in which information is presented and absorbed. The cost of paper and the cost of shipping chunks of paper has always limited, and sharply, the number of words and images that could be used. Hyperlinks in a book (also known as cross-references) are cumbersome to use, and footnotes and a bibliography (external links) are much, much worse. So a Website can present more content than a book, and can organize it in more effective ways.

And then there’s the sense-o-rama. As I learn Dreamweaver, I’m turning to Lynda.com, a site packed with tutorial videos. Learning from a video, I’m finding, is quicker and easier than learning from a book. It’s like having a college lecturer who demonstrates stuff on a big screen, except that you can rewind the lecture and watch it again whenever you need to. And seeing how the screen changes when the lecturer clicks on it is an experience that sinks into the brain in a different way than if you read about the same feature. Sure, I can buy a book on Dreamweaver (and I probably will), but I’m a print-oriented guy. Many people will learn from videos who would have trouble digesting information in book form.

I spent more than 30 years writing for music magazines. I still do, though not as often as in former times. The magazines have shrunk dramatically in the past decade. Some have gone under. And the Web is why. The monthly magazine is no longer the most effective or efficient method of disseminating information. I may mourn (if a bit prematurely — Keyboard and Electronic Musician are still gamely trudging on, though with skeleton staffs) the demise of the music magazine as I’ve known and loved it. But I’m not ready to have them put me in a pine box quite yet. I plan to remain active in the publishing industry. Hence: Dreamweaver.

True, most Websites are designed to sell products. But I’m sure when the printing press was invented, the pressmen put food on the table by printing handbills. We also have thousands of sites, from wikipedia on down, that are primarily or entirely informational. I turn to them constantly! The Liebling quote, above — I thought it was from H. L. Mencken, but I had sense enough to google it. Finding it in the library, unless it was in Bartlett’s, would have taken at least an hour, and the search might have been in vain.

It wasn’t too long after the invention of the printing press that people started writing novels. Most of them were trash, but we also got Don Quixote. I haven’t seen much yet in the way of websites whose intentions are purely artistic, but I’m sure they’re out there. I’m sure thousands of tech-savvy young people are hunched over their laptops far into the night, discovering ways to dazzle us with their creative vision. I might even want to have a go at it myself. Hence: Dreamweaver.

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