TeX Hour

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Why paper? Why print? Why PDF? Why HTML?


Jonathan Fine Today we use history to put into context the importance of the first arXiv Access Forum, which was earlier this week. The arXiv intends to offer research articles in both PDF and HTML. They retain the current LaTeX-based production process, and add to another that provides HTML. This is a major development.

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The combination of imagination and toolmaking that we have is not shared by any other species on Earth. It allows us to form huge social organisations, which can help us and harm us. Artificial Intelligence is the latest example.

AI is all about shared knowledge and, we hope, wisdom. About 2,000 years ago the Chinese started making paper, for writing, drawing and money. About 1,000 years ago it came to Europe. Around 1850 paper from wood-pulp was a thing, and being a clerk (or writer) lost its high status.

Parallel to this, and in mutual dependence, there is print using moveable type. After beginning in China around 1,000 years ago, Gutenberg created his high quality and relatively low cost Bible in 1455. Hot-metal typesetting in the 19th century largely replaced moveable type (with its upper-case and lower-case).

In 1609 weekly printed newspapers started in Germany. In 1937 four men owned close to half the newspapers in the UK, with a combined daily circulation of over 13 million. This arose in part from the steam driven rotary printing press operating on massive continuous rolls of newsprint.

From the time of Martin Luther (1483-1546), paper and print were and still are important human artifacts that create, influence and change human society. Even when hand written, important document achieved their influence through print.

Which brings us to PDF, HTML and the arXiv Access Forum. For the past 500 years paper and print has given much of humanity access to news, culture, gossip, sport and generally a shared culture and understanding. It also enabled and promoted education and literacy.

Until the 1980s paper physical moved was the dominant means of distribution. Even telegrams were transcribed onto paper and then delivered. Think of email versus snailmail. The Internet (1980s), and particularly the World Wide Web (1990) changed all this. Earlier this century streaming over the Internet challenged broadcast radio and television.

I now in my pocket have a device which allows me to have a video conversation with a friend in a different continent. There is a rich culture going back 500 years for the printed book. It should not lightly be discarded. There is enormous energy and innovative in computing and telecommunications. It should not be disregarded.

Our task, which also includes providing access to those permanently or temporarily disabled, is to make access to this cultural life something similar to a human right and social good, much as in the great library movement in the 19th century and earlier.

One of the great modern uses of printing today is printed circuit boards and photolithography of processor and memory chips. The world leading in photolithography is ASML in the Netherlands. It has revenue about $23 billion and 40,000 employees. For comparison, Heidelberg is the world leader in printing presses. It has revenue $2.7 billion and 12,000 employees.

This then, in a large nutshell, is the historic context for the arXiv’s decision to give HTML some sort of equality of esteem with PDF.


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