Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Patterns of Information Consumption

A few centuries ago, there wasn’t as much history as there is today. That should be obvious, of course, because a few centuries of history have happened, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the 14th century, prior to the invention of the printing press, there wasn’t much that a person could really know. Books were closely guarded, and they were produced at a comparatively slow rate – about a thousand were published each year. In 2006, the world put out two hundred thousand new books. To put that in perspective, that mean that in six months we matched the entire 14th century.

Before the printing press, knowledge of all kinds was confined to on of two things – a person, or a book. Since books were laboriously produced one at a time, they were almost as physically restrictive as a person. To get the information contained in either of these sources, you would have to seek it out in the real world, and hope that the book hadn’t burned, crumbled, rotted, or simply been misplaced. Because of these physical limitations on how data was accessed, knowledge and especially history tended to be geographically bound. A traveler would bring back stories, and those stories would be spread through the oral tradition, mutating into nearly unrecognizable forms. That was how people learned about other cultures, and even with the advent of the ambassador the common person would only know these things third or fourth hand.

The printing press changed things, but it took a long time, especially since literacy didn’t really catch on. With multiple copies of a book, information could be spread much faster. It was still confined, mind you, as only the most popular (or at least well funded) books would get the printing press treatment. The advent of newer and better methods of communication like the television and radio allowed one single (if still local) source to broadcast out to an entire community. Information was more free than ever, but it would take one more technology to fundamentally change human understanding one last time.

I’m speaking, of course, about the internet. Anyone who wants to say anything can say it there. Restrictions on free speech are limited only to the base and foul, and most of that gets put online anyway. Information doesn’t have to be filtered through an authority source anymore. If I want to know about the war, I can read a blog written by someone in the military, on the ground in Iraq. If I don’t trust that the information there is accurate, I can simply move on to the next blog, or follow trackbacks, comments, and criticisms. In a world where information was still constrained to physical form, this wouldn’t have been even remotely possible. Criticism of books was left to newspapers and magazines, with an interfering editorial process and more often than not an overlying capitalist agenda. There is more free information today than ever before, vast virtual archives of criticism, discussion, first hand experience, and the raw stuff of science.

Some might look at the world today and ask, “How did our ancestors get by without this stuff?” I look at the world today and think, “How are we able to process this?” Humans are eminently adaptable, true, but we weren’t built to handle the amount of information that’s coming at us. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that in six months of 2006 we matched the entire new published books output of the 14th century. Yet the individual’s capacity for reading hasn’t improved much in that time. We aren’t, as a species, that much smarter than we were then – better nutrition has helped some, but only by a few IQ points. And while the 14th century might have had information stored mostly in books, today we have movies, magazines, newspapers, television, and of course, the flood that is the internet. How are we handling it?

The initial promise of e-commerce was disintermediation – customers and businesses would be able to function more efficiently because the middle man would be cut out. In the realm of information processing, we’re seeing an opposite trend. Because so much is coming at us at once, we have to pick and choose what we’re going to pay attention to. Partly because of that, and partly because of the increase in advertising, there’s an overwhelming desire for reviewers – people who will tell us what’s important and what’s not. The nature of the internet allows us to take it a level beyond that. We can aggregate reviews, or review the reviewers, or listen to people with no qualifications or credentials. We have websites like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, that can tell us what the collective thinks.

That’s the clustering trend. The other trend is a divergent one. If you have an interest, there’s a website for it. The cost for making a website is nothing, so a person with an intense interest in, say, porcelain horses can create it and maintain it with no cost other than time. For people with niche interests, time is nearly meaningless. Then at person might find another website devoted to porcelain horses, and they would link to each other. This would continue until their community had grown up to be a certain size. In this way, knowledge and information can become as specialized as individual interests dictate. So can communities.

There’s a push and pull at work here between insularity and transience. It’s more visible in the virtual world than in the physical one, but it happens to people in both places. Especially in large cities, we can and do surround ourselves only with people who fall within the narrow confines of our interests and beliefs. This is the new world of humanity; we skim the big pools but confine ourselves to the places and people we define as “ours”. There’s more of everything than there ever was, but I fear that we’re experiencing only as much as we ever did.

No comments: