Caduceus asks that question at MetaFilter, and IndiaInk has started a thread in reply.
There have, of course, been many effects. some good, others not so good. Caduceus is probably asking for practical advice on using new technologies and media, but the question could also be answered in a broader sense. Following are a few consequences of new technologies that come immediately to mind.
- Maybe the most significant result of new design and printing technologies is just that publishing has become more affordable. I think it was Ben Franklin who said “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” Through the centuries printing and publishing required a significant investment that kept the industry in the control of an exclusive group of specialists. That has changed and now anyone can easily and cheaply publish a book (although promoting, marketing, and selling it remain difficult).
Print on demand and short run printing have also made it possible to keep books in print that formerly could not have been reprinted because of the expense of a conventional reprint, which penalizes short runs with very high unit costs. These technologies make self-publishing (or at least self-printing) economically viable.
- Word processing has changed the way texts are written and edited. Authors used to resort to elaborate strategies to make revisions. Evan Connell, for example, used to retype passages and then attach the new sheets with windows cut out of the pages where he wanted the original text to remain. Today revising and moving words, passages, and even chapters is so simple that the text is rarely a continuous stream, like that championed by Kerouac, for example, and instead is more like a snowflake, with elaborations being worked on all sides around the core idea.
- Regarding typography, rather than working with a limited set of font sizes (in the hot type era, one often had to make do with a very restrictive font set), designers now have a nearly seamless continuum of sizes and widths to work with. It also used to be difficult to set type in anything but a rectangularly block — now limitless effects can be achieved quickly and easily. This gives designers and layout people extraordinary freedom to create spectacular results — or to screw up spectacularly.
- New type formats have enormously multiplied the number of typefaces available, at a low cost compared to previous technologies. There was a time when typesetters might spend years working with only one or two typefaces — whose qualities they would come to know intimately — but today people flit from one face to another, in the same work, or page, or even sentence. While the principles of good typography remain largely unchanged, type families and traditions have have become kaleidoscopically confounded.
Typography was formerly a craft that was highly constrained by tradition — probably master-apprentice lineages of typesetters could be worked out, much as Melissa Rinne has traced lineages of bamboo artists — whereas today relatively few people working with type are educated in the craft’s traditions.
- The integrity of the image has been sacrificed for ease of production and the graphic artist’s command of effects. Digital photography and low-cost digital scanning have reduced the cost of photographing and printing in color, and images and texts are more integrated than they used to be and can be moved and modified together. Image manipulation is easy and can produce effects that were previously almost unimaginable. Photographs are no longer authoritative. Images are tweaked and modified at nearly every stage of production and in nearly every instance of use, making image authorship itself problemmatic.
In sum, more flexible and affordable printing and publishing options are available than in the past, with a lower bar to entry. On balance this is good, but it means that a large percentage of work is amateur in nature. Writers rush to print before their work has matured or their texts have been sufficiently edited. Books are produced that are so painful to look at they are effectively unreadable, never mind the text.
Amateurs can, of course, produce first-rate work, but the very ease with which a book can be produced makes it unlikely that many people will educate themselves on the qualities that distinguish well-made books. Probably more excellent works are being created than ever before, but as readers we are drowning in a sea of pabulum, and finding those instances of excellence becomes challenging.