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March 9, 2012

[2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2)

Yesterday I tried to explain my sense that we’re not really suffering from information overload, while of course acknowledging that there is vastly more information out there than anyone could ever hope to master. Then a comment from Alex Richter helped me clarify my thinking.

We certainly do at times feel overwhelmed. But consider why you don’t feel like you’re suffering from information overload about, say, the history of stage costumes, Chinese public health policy, the physics of polymers, or whatever topic you would never have majored in, even though each of these topics contains an information overload. I think there are two reasons those topics don’t stress you.

First, and most obviously, because (ex hypothesis) you don’t care about that topic, you’re not confronted with having to hunt down some piece of information, and that topic’s information is not in your face.

But I think there’s a second reason. We have been taught by our previous media that information is manageable. Give us 23 minutes and we’ll give you the world, as the old radio slogan used to say. Read the daily newspaper — or Time or Newsweek once a week — and now you have read the news. That’s the promise implicit in the old media. But the new medium promises us instead edgeless topics and endless links. We know there is no possibility of consuming “the news,” as if there were such a thing. We know that whatever topic we start with, we won’t be able to stay within its bounds without doing violence to that topic. There is thus no possibility of mastering a field. So, sure, there’s more information than anyone could ever take in, but that relieves us of the expectation that we will master it. You can’t be overwhelmed if whelming is itself impossible.

So, I think our sense of being overwhelmed by information is an artifact of our being in a transitional age, with old expectations for mastery that the new environment gives the lie to.

No, this doesn’t mean that we lose all responsibility for knowing anything. Rather, it means we lose responsibility for knowing everything.

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February 26, 2012

[2b2k] Linking is a public good

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has posted the Twitter stream that followed upon his tweet criticizing the Wall Street Journal for running an article based on a post by TechCrunch’s MC Siegler, who responded in an angry post.

Mathew’s point is that linking is a good journalistic practice, even if author of the the second article independently confirmed the information in the first, as happened in this case. Mathew thinks it’s a matter of trust, and if the repeater gets caught at it, it would indeed erode trust. Of course, they probably won’t, and even if you did read the WSJ article after reading the TechCrunch post, you’d probably assume that the news was coming from a common source.

I think there’s another reason why reports ought to link to their, um, inspirations: Links are a public good. They create a web that is increasingly rich, useful, diverse, and trustworthy. We should all feel an obligation to be caretakers of and contributors to this new linked public.

And there’s a further reason. In addition to building this new infrastructure of curiosity, linking is a small act of generosity that sends people away from your site to some other that you think shows the world in a way worth considering. Linking is a public service that reminds us how deeply we are social and public creatures.

Which I think helps explains why newspapers often are not generous with their links. A paper like the WSJ believes its value — as well as its self-esteem — comes from being the place you go for news. It covers the stories worth covering, and the stories tell you what you need to know. It is thus a stopping point in the ecology of information. And that’s the oeprational definition of authority: The last place you visit when you’re looking for an answer. If you are satisfied with the answer, you stop your pursuit of it. Take the links out and you think you look like more of an authority. To this mindset, links are sign of weakness.

This made more sense when knowledge was paper-based, because in practical terms that’s pretty much how it worked: You got your news rolled up and thrown onto your porch once a day, and if you wanted more information about an article in it, you were pretty much SOL. Paper masked just how indebted the media were to one another. The media have always been an ecology of knowledge, but paper enabled them to pretend otherwise, and to base much of their economic value on that pretense.

Until newspapers are as heavily linked as GigaOm, TechCrunch, and Wikipedia, until newspapers revel in pointing away from themselves, they are depending on a value that was always unreal and now is unsustainable.

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February 1, 2012

So, I said to my pal Rupert Murdoch, Rupie, how about if…

I do appreciate John Blossom’s listing me among the top ten influential people in digital media. Thanks, John. And while my ego’s nether regions are indeed all a-tingle, I’m mainly enjoying the thought of the other nine people — the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — reading the list and saying “Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, wtf?, uh huh…”

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December 23, 2011

[2b2k] Is HuffPo killing the news?

Mathew Ingram has a provocative post at Gigaom defending HuffingtonPost and its ilk from the charge that they over-aggregate news to the point of thievery. I’m not completely convinced by Mathew’s argument, but that’s because I’m not completely convinced by any argument about this.

It’s a very confusing issue if you think of it from the point of view of who owns what. So, take the best of cases, in which HuffPo aggregates from several sources and attributes the reportage appropriately. It’s important to take a best case since we’ll all agree that if HuffPo lifts an article en toto without attribution, it’s simple plagiarism. But that doesn’t tell us if the best cases are also plagiarisms. To make it juicier, assume that in one of these best cases, HuffPo relies heavily on one particular source article. It’s still not a slam dunk case of theft because in this example HuffPo is doing what we teach every school child to do: If you use a source, attribute it.

But, HuffPo isn’t a schoolchild. It’s a business. It’s making money from those aggregations. Ok, but we are fine in general with people selling works that aggregate and attribute. Non-fiction publishing houses that routinely sell books that have lots of footnotes are not thieves. And, as Mathew points out, HuffPo (in its best cases) is adding value to the sources it aggregates.

But, HuffPo’s policy even in its best case can enable it to serve as a substitute for the newspapers it’s aggregating. It thus may be harming the sources its using.

And here we get to what I think is the most important question. If you think about the issue in terms of theft, you’re thrown into a moral morass where the metaphors don’t work reliably. Worse, you may well mix in legal considerations that are not only hard to apply, but that we may not want to apply given the new-ness (itself arguable) of the situation.

But, I find that I am somewhat less conflicted about this if I think about it terms of what direction we’d like to nudge our world. For example, when it comes to copyright I find it helpful to keep in mind that a world full of music and musicians is better than a world in which music is rationed. When it comes to news aggregation, many of us will agree that a world in which news is aggregated and linked widely through the ecosystem is better than one in which you—yes, you, since a rule against HuffPo aggregating sources wouldn’t apply just to HuffPo— have to refrain from citing a source for fear that you’ll cross some arbitrary limit. We are a healthier society if we are aggregating, re-aggregating, contextualizing, re-using, evaluating, and linking to as many sources as we want.

Now, beginning by thinking where we want the world to be —which, by the way, is what this country’s Founders did when they put copyright into the Constitution in the first place: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”—is useful but limited, because to get the desired situation in which we can aggregate with abandon, we need the original journalistic sources to survive. If HuffPo and its ilk genuinely are substituting for newspapers economically, then it seems we can’t get to where we want without limiting the right to aggregate.

And that’s why I’m conflicted. I don’t believe that even if all rights to aggregate were removed (which no one is proposing), newspapers would bounce back. At this point, I’d guess that the Net generation is primarily interested in news mainly insofar as its woven together and woven into the larger fabric. Traditional reportage is becoming valued more as an ingredient than a finished product. It’s the aggregators—the HuffingtonPosts of the world, but also the millions of bloggers, tweeters and retweeters, Facebook likers and Google plus-ers, redditors and slashdotters, BoingBoings and Ars Technicas— who are spreading the news by adding value to it. News now only moves if we’re interested enough in it to pass it along. So, I don’t know how to solve journalism’s deep problems with its business models, but I can’t imagine that limiting the circulation of ideas will help, since in this case, the circulatory flow is what’s keeping the heart beating.

 


[A few minutes later] Mathew has also posted what reads like a companion piece, about how Amazon’s Kindle Singles are supporting journalism.

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December 16, 2011

Terry Heaton on the misleading year coming up

Terry Heaton provides some broad context in a provocative post about the coming year of media turmoil. He writes in an email:

2012 is a dangerous year for all mass media, because decay in our core competency will again be hidden by record revenues (in some cases) due to what promises to be a huge political year. Despite advances in communications’ methods, politicians fall back on the tried and true during elections, and that means big money for an industry that’s struggling. The money will distract us from the real issues, and before you know it, 2013 will be here. It’s time to do something completely different.

The actual post is about the media issues the political year will distract us from.

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October 10, 2011

Erik Martin on what makes Reddit special

Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit, explains what’s so special about the discussion site. I’m particularly interested in the nature of authority on the site, and its introduction of new journalistic rhetorical forms.

2 Comments »

September 11, 2011

With a little twist of Heidegger

I’m giving a talk in Berlin in a week. My hosts want me to talk about the evolution of media, but suggested that I might want to weave some Heidegger in, which is not a request you often get. It’s a brief talk, but what I’ve written talks about four pairs, all based on Shannon’s original drawing of signal moving through a channel. 1. The medium and bits as idealized abstractions. 2. The medium and messages: How McLuhan reacts against information theory’s idea of a medium, and the sense in which on the Internet we are the medium. 3. Medium and communication: Why we think of communication as something that occurs through a medium, rather than as a way in which we share the world. 4. Medium and noise: Why the world appears, in its most brutal facticity, in Shannon’s diagram as noise, and how the richness of the Web (which consists of connections intentionally made) is in fact signal that taken together can be noise. (I know I am not using these terms rigorously.)

At the end, I’ll summarize the four contrasts:

Bits without character vs. A world that always shows itself as something

The medium as a vacuum vs. We are the medium that moves messages because we care about them

Communication as the reproduction of a representation in the listener’s head vs. Turning to a shared world together

World as noise vs. Links as a context of connection

Not by coincidence, each of these is a major Heideggerian theme: Being-as or meaning, care, truth. and world.

And if it’s not obvious, I do not think that Heidegger’s writings on technology have anything much to do with the Internet. He was criticizing the technology of the 1950s that scared him: mainframes and broadcast. He probably would have hated the Net also, but he was a snobby little fascist prick.

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July 30, 2011

News unboxed

I just read the NY Times. In print. Cover to cover, so to speak, although I skipped the parts that didn’t interest me, which were most of the parts at least beyond the second paragraph. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience. I then put my coffee cup in the sink, declared that unit of the day over, and opened my laptop to begin the next.

In a hyperlinked world, boxing off content is unlikely to be a winning strategy. “Here is your morning box of world news, sir. By reading every item in this box, you will be Well Informed, No, sir, for that distinction you need read nothing outside of this box.” Nah.

But, even though my usual morning news reading does not come in a box, it does occur within a stretch of time: Over breakfast on most days I read through feeds I’ve aggregated via Netvibes.com, straying as far out onto the Web as my interests lead me. I stop not when I reach the end of the news, but when I reach the end of coffee.

Obviously, I continue poking around the news (i.e., what is happening in the world) all day long. Nevertheless, I do have a morning news box, defined by time, not by the edges of content.

I suspect that’s because I grew up with morning newspapers and the evening news. I assume that The Kids These Days generally don’t have any sort of box for news. Amiwrong?

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July 2, 2011

Tolstoy and the Shakespeare meme

Tolstoy really really doesn’t like Shakespeare. His polemic is a wonderful literary rant, taking him on for putting undifferentiated characters into ridiculous plots, speaking language no one would ever actually say, and betraying Christian values and virtues. His opening recounting of King Lear shows just how absurd the plot is, and he moves on from there.

So why is Shakespeare universally acclaimed? He thinks the Germans — Goethe, in particular — started it, and it became what would today call a meme:

With the development of the press, it has now come to pass that so soon as any event, owing to casual circumstances, receives and especially prominent significance, immediately the organs of press announce this significance. As soon as the press has brought forward the significance of the event, the public devotes more and more attention to it. The attention of the public prompts the press to examine the event with greater attention and in greater detail. The interest of the public further increases, and the organs of the press, competing with one another, satisfy the public demand. The press is still more interested; the press attributes yet more significance to the event. So that the importance of the event, continually growing, like a lump of snow, receives an appreciation utterly inappropriate to its real significance, this appreciation often exaggerated to insanity, is retained so long as the conception of life of the leaders of the press and of the public remains the same.”

His example of a story without merit is, alas, the Dreyfus Affair. Indeed, Tolstoy does a pretty bad job picking which of the current celebs would last. Among those he thinks are flashes in the pan are George Sand, Charles Darwin, and Hegel.

Now, I still like Shakespeare, although of course I wouldn’t be able to convince Tolstoy. The artificiality Tolstoy points to for me serves a greater realism.

So, Tolstoy is right that Shakespeare’s plays often begin by asking us to accept a ridiculous premise. Othello is both so in love and so untrusting that he won’t be persuaded away from the flimsiest of evidence. Lear so misjudges his daughters that he disowns Cordelia even though she could have explained herself over half a goblet of wine. Hamlet’s plot is put in motion by a ghost. But I don’t mind. I know I’m swallowing the premise so I can be put into a special space where a person — not a type, not a canned virtue or vice — will behave in a particularly human way. Shakespeare defines humans by their weaknesses, and those weaknesses are outside the simple categories of vice and sin, unlike in the morality plays that preceded Shakespeare. Othello’s weakness cannot be comprehended by the traditional vices, nor can the allure of Richard III’s evil. How else do you explain Hamlet’s coldness toward Ophelia? How do you explain Shylock except by his unique mix of avarice, justice, fatherly love…? Shakespeare redefines us as uniquely weak, flawed, and impossible to understand in the old categories.

To do so, he puts humans into unrealistic situations in which they speak in iambic pentameter, and occasionally voice thoughts only newly recognized as inner. Tolstoy makes his case clearly, but it only makes it clearer to me why Shakespeare’s standing is no mere meme.

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June 25, 2011

Interesting reading abounds

Ever since I ended my paper-based relationship with the Boston Globe, I’ve done my breakfast reading in front of a monitor on our kitchen table. Today, I spent a little longer, and read some excellent articles:

  • Stephen Metcalf writes about Robert Nozick’s legitimizing effect on Libertarianism, and the philosophical weakness of the case he made for it. I have not heard anyone else make Metcalf’s critique of the Wilt Chamberlain argument (so far as I recall).

  • In Scientific American, John Horgan defends Stephen Jay Gould from the charge that his brilliant example of personal bias affecting scientific outcomes was itself based on Gould’s own biases. It’s actually a weak defense, with Horgan instead defending a related point SJG was making: “Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology.” By coincidence, a couple of days ago I came across my old copy of an anthology titled “The Sociobiology Debate” that was compiled in 1978 when the idea that evolution shape ours our social behavior was not just controversial, but to many of us (including me) seemed quite threatening: it implied a lack of free will (which I no longer care about) and it was sometimes used to give a sheen of inevitability to the most conservative and even oppressive of social behaviors. Unfortunately, Horgan’s argument against sociobiology consists of the following single paragraph:

    “Biological determinism is a blight on science. It implies that the way things are is the way they must be. We have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do. This position is wrong, both empirically and morally. If you doubt me on this point, read [Gould’s] Mismeasure [of Man], which, even discounting the chapter on Morton, abounds in evidence of how science can become an instrument of malignant ideologies.”

  • Also in Slate, I disagree so sharply with Jack Shafer’s criticism of Jose Antonio Vargas that I think I must be missing something obvious. Jose is the former Washington Post and Huffington Post journalist (and Pulitzer-prize winner, by the way) who came out as an undocumented immigrant in an article in tomorrow’s NY Times Magazine. Shafer declares himself to be an “immigration dove”: “I believe in open borders and detest our current laws and their enforcement.” If you hate the law’s enforcement, how can you also get in a snit about someone who lies to evade that enforcement? Or perhaps it’s only journalists who shouldn’t lie to their employers about their immigration status because there needs to be a special bond of trust between the editor and the journalist. So, which jobs does Shafer think do not require trust? Or is this just journalism dealing with its self-esteem issues again? Jose didn’t lie about his credentials, and he didn’t lie in his stories. He lied about the thing the bad laws Shafer “detests” made him lie about, just as forty years ago he likely would have had to lie about his sexual preferences. If Shafer thinks Jose’s admission makes him unreliable, then go through his work and find where this lack of reliablity manifests itself. If it doesn’t, then salute Jose for his honesty and courage. (Disclosure: Although I haven’t talked with him in a year or two, I count Jose as a friend, beginning in his pre-Pulitzer WaPo days. He has struck me as an honest, open-minded, and impassioned inquirer. I like him a lot.)

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