Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, talks about working for Alan Kay, starting the Criterion Collection and Voyager on laserdisc, Hypercard e-books, and interactive CD-ROMs — essentially, the whole prehistory of where we are now with just about all digital media:
The book was always fundamental to me. One of the things I really liked was that the original logo for Criterion, which we designed in 1984, was a book turning into a disc. It was central. When I was writing the paper for Britannica, I felt like I had to relate the idea of interactive media to books, and I was really wrestling with the question “What is a book?” What’s essential about a book? What happens when you move that essence into some other medium? And I just woke up one day and realized that if I thought about a book not in terms of its physical properties—ink on paper—but in terms of the way it’s used, that a book was the one medium where the user was in control of the sequence and the pace at which they accessed the material. I started calling books “user-driven media,” in contrast to movies, television, and radio, which were producer-driven. You were in control of a book, but with these other media you weren’t; you just sat in a chair and they happened to you. I realized that once microprocessors got into the mix, what we considered producer-driven was going to be transformed into something user-driven. And that, of course, is what you have today, whether it’s TiVo or the DVD.
And how did DVDs get commentary tracks? Let Bob tell you:
You have to understand how much of this stuff is accidental. I knew the guy who was the curator of films at the LA County Museum of Art, and I brought him to New York to oversee color correction. He’s telling us all these amazing stories, particularly about King Kong, because it’s his favorite film. Someone said, “Gee, we’ve got this extra sound track on the LaserDisc, why don’t you tell these stories?” He was horrified at the idea, but we promised we’d get him superstoned if he did, and he gave this amazing discussion about the making of King Kong, which we released as the second sound track…
We had people driving to our home, where our offices were, by the second day, and begging for copies. It was Los Angeles, it was the film industry—and finally someone had done something serious with film. Film was suddenly being treated in a published form, like literature. But this still wasn’t mainstream. Citizen Kane was three discs and cost $125. It cost us $40 to manufacture. The most LaserDiscs we ever sold was about twenty thousand copies of Blade Runner.
I don’t usually squee with delight, but: Squeee!