the world almanac and the fact of unplanned obsolescence

In the course of perusing one of my bookshelves at home (for reasons I no longer recall) I came upon one of the pleasurable surprises that are the reward for being a disorganized book hoarder rather than an organized bibliophile: A 1993 edition of the 125

In the course of perusing one of my bookshelves at home (for reasons I no longer recall) I came upon one of the pleasurable surprises that are the reward for being a disorganized book hoarder rather than an organized bibliophile: A 1993 edition of the 125th anniversary edition of the World Almanac and Book of Facts, dating from 1993.

I mention this discovery because it brought home to me, yet again, how much my world, and the world of a huge number of people more or less like me, has changed since the internet “went commercial” back in 1994-1995.

It is no accident that this particular issue of the World Almanac, then boasting its one-and-a-quarter centuries of being a national best seller, was the very last one I ever bought – and not only forgot to buy again in 1994, but more or less forgot I had ever bought in the first place.

By 1994, like a lot of other computer-enabled nerds of the time, I was mucking around with the early stages of the internet, where, even then, many of the facts and figures that were the stock and trade of the Pharos Books Company of Park Avenue, New York (the almanac’s publishers) were now becoming free and public knowledge.

Stumbling upon it as I did, I was a little startled at how a habit of probably about 20 years – the annual or biannual purchase of the World Almanac – had so swiftly slipped from my mind and memory in the space of a year or two.

Like most people of a nerdy or creative bent, I have an inherent addiction to factoids and arcane information; and it was the World Almanac that for almost two decades was my principal source of that kind of information – the kind of thing I now routinely and habitually scour up from the more obscure reaches of Google or Wikipedia.

At 960 pages for $10.99 1993 Canadian dollars, the World Almanac was not particularly cheap (paperback novels for the most part sold for about three or four dollars, back then), but not a bad deal, either, despite its obvious and glaring limitations.

First of all, being an American publication, it was really a “world” almanac in name only – about as “world” encompassing as the World Series of baseball.

Of the 10 top stories it lists for 1993, five are exclusively about the United States, with Bill Clinton’s defeat of George Bush Sr. for the U.S. presidency being story number one.

Still, it had interesting international information about things like the world’s largest cities, and quirky but sometimes historically information about things like patents or new technological ideas.

In 1993, for instance, a patent was filed for a tape recorder device that helped readers increase their reading speed by imitating the sound of ocean waves (a non-starter); another patent was filed for a radio that would display written information about a song as it was broadcast (ahead of its time); a square ball that bounced as predictably as a round one (an example of over-engineering the pointless); and a cotton swap on a flexible stick that would not puncture your ear drum (an obvious winner).

The Inventor of the Year Award for 1992 went to four IBM researchers for coming up with the concept of Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) – a development that meant nothing to me in my computer-innocent days of 1993, but came to play a significant role in my professional future a few years later.

All fun facts culled from the yellowing pages of this old book on my shelf, but not enough to convince me to become a regular customer of the Pharos Books Company again.

I do not have any information about the current financial status of Pharos Books, but, on the basis of my quickly assembled market study, I do not much like their long-term chances of survival.

Of the two main libraries in Whitehorse, for instance, only one – Yukon College – has a copy of the World Almanac and Book of Facts, and that one dates from 2004; Whitehorse Public Library has no copies at all on its shelf, though a copy of the 2010 edition is apparently available in Dawson City.

If 1993 marked a high point for the World Almanac, it also marked the point at which its fortunes tipped, and it began to slip into irrelevance and obsolescence..

According to Amazon, the current version of the Almanac is list-priced at $12.99 US – so, a much better deal than in 1993, and a much better deal at the Amazon discounted price of $8.51. But it is still a book that is trying to sell you information you can garner much more easily, and for free, from a simple web search.

So, thanks for the memories, World Almanac and Book of Facts, but the fact is that your long day of good and reliable service is setting about as quickly as a tropical sunset, and without the promise of a new day to follow.

Those are just the facts, in the new world of data communication.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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