Gutenberg the geek…

At left in the foreground, a printer removes a...

At left in the foreground, a printer removes a printed page from the press. The printer at right is inking the plate. In the background, compositors are using cast type. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just downloaded and read Jeff Jarvis‘s Kindle single, “Gutenberg the Geek” (free to Prime subscribers, 99 cents otherwise). It provides a short history of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, drawing parallels between his initial business and how the printing press revolutionized every area of human endeavor and Silicon Valley tech start-ups and how we are currently going through a similar revolution with the Internet. At the end, Jarvis offers a persuasive argument for protecting the openness and public nature of the Internet, since we still cannot predict what revolutionary changes it will bring about in human civilization, just as in the early days of the printing press, no one could foresee that it would power the Reformation, enable the rise of modern science and create entirely new professions. It’s an entertaining and informative read (less than 20 minutes) that will be of interest to anyone who cares about books, technology or entrepreneurship.

Too much information?

At left in the foreground, a printer removes a...

There is no doubt about it — we are living in an information Golden Age. In just a matter of minutes, and assuming my computer and Internet connection are working, I can find the top news stories of the day, plus analysis and commentary; I can research almost any question I have; I can read opinions on pretty much any subject; I can watch videos, view art and listen to music, all with a click.

But is it all too much for us to cope with? I’m reading a fascinating book about the history of science: Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris. He describes how the invention of the printing press put books that were once extremely difficult to obtain into nearly every university, library and even some homes. Just as importantly, the accuracy and consistency of those books became much more reliable because they were no longer copied out by hand. As a result, science experienced a boom time, because scientists could finally easily read, study and build on each other’s ideas and data.

The development of the Internet, I think, will carry us into another boom time, if it hasn’t already begun. Not since the invention of the printing press has it been so easy to share information and build on what we already know. I don’t think it’s possible to have too much information. Information inevitably leads to innovation and progress. (That’s why it is so often suppressed.)

Internets = Parody motivator.

Image via Wikipedia

However, we have to change our habits when it comes to dealing with this unending flow of information, just as readers and publishers had to in the Renaissance following the invention of the printing press. It is no longer sufficient to be a passive receiver, even if you are not a scientist, but are a mere consumer of information. And content producers can no longer be one-way broadcasters of mass media, pushing content out to the lowest common denominator.

Rather, we must cultivate our sense of discernment, our ability to analyze, our critical thinking skills. We must be more willing to challenge what we read, see and hear on the Internet. We also must actively cull our incoming information flow, constantly editing our content stream so that it best serves our needs. I didn’t learn these skills in school; I don’t think many of my generation did. But they may (and should) be taught to my son.

I have had to learn for myself how to direct the fire hose of information. I have found this challenging and exciting, especially as I have watched the rise of social networks and seen how others engage in commentary and sharing. We are all helping one another to learn. We no longer rely on experts; each one of us can be consumer, publisher, analyst and critic of information.

My son is only three years old, but already I can see that he is unwilling to act as a passive receiver of information. Television cannot hold his attention when the computer beckons. What has been a challenging learning experience for me will probably be second nature to him.

I think it’s a waste of time to wonder if there is too much information available to us today. There is clearly no such thing as “too much information.” Human beings thrive on information, and if our species can be said to have a common purpose, it has been to increase our knowledge, to explore and discover. We will figure out how to better use these tools that we’ve invented. Our ability to adapt is one of our strengths, after all. But best of all, we will progress. With all of this information at our disposal, I don’t think we’ll be able to help it.

The End of Forgetting?

Reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine‘s big article today, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” I had several thoughts. The article, about online privacy and how old data can haunt us all our lives in a socially networked world, rehashes a familiar chestnut. In the age of Web 2.0, our privacy is greatly eroded. Our past misdeeds live on forever digitally, and we will be judged by them until the end of time, unable to get jobs or dates or a fresh start.

I had several reactions to this. The first was that this behavior is nothing new. Before the industrial age, we lived in small communities, where everyone knew everything about everybody, and made judgments — whether deserved or not — based on that knowledge. We still have those villages today; they have just changed form. The article idealizes past village life, stating that villagers were admonished to forget the sins of their neighbors, but whether this was actually done is not clear. I don’t think so, based on countless novels I have read about life in those villages. The article makes a metaphor of the scarlet letter, but wasn’t the scarlet letter intended as a way to make sure no one in the village forgot the sin of the past?

Human behavior hasn’t changed all that much, but our tools have. Our tools are not the problem, as these articles always seem to suggest. As if technology were some amorphous personality with its own desires and motives. Regardless of how many drunken photos are pasted on Facebook, it’s not Facebook that judges us, but one another. And if we didn’t have Facebook as the means to facilitate judgment, something else would take its place.

I would argue that these technologies are actually helping us, rather than setting us back. Sure, there is the obligatory anecdote of the person getting fired because of an indiscreet photo posted online. The frightening bugaboo of potential employers, scanning the web into the wee hours for our indiscretions, even our poor choices in books and movies, so they can decide not to hire us based on these things, is dutifully trotted out. At some point, such scrupulous employers will run out of candidates who meet their ridiculous standards, at which point, such standards will be relaxed. When almost everyone has a drunken picture of them somewhere on the web, it will cease to be scandalous. And I think that day is approaching more quickly due to all our openness.

Our social technologies have moved gossip and judgment out of the dark corners of the village and out into the bright light of day. I don’t think the solution is to find better ways to erase or hide our digital pasts. On the contrary, more openness about who we are and what we do, I think leads to better understanding of one another, and more acceptance and more tolerance. When something is hidden and secret, it becomes titillating and scandalous. When something is out in the open, it becomes commonplace. Perhaps not forgetting, rather than forgetting, is a better way to move toward a more tolerant world.

The Web Means the End of Forgetting (New York Times)

Thoughts on advertising on the Internet

I am revisiting a perennial bugaboo: advertising on websites. This was sparked after reading a post that pretty much equated ad-blocking to stealing (similar to the “using DVRs to fast-forward through commercials is stealing” argument).

Not too long ago, I started using AdBlock. I had never seen the need before, but since I switched to web surfing on a Netbook, website ads became not only annoying and interfered with the content I was trying to read, but also slowed down my computer unacceptably. Even though installing the Chrome AdBlock extension is relatively fast and easy, I probably wouldn’t have taken this step if my web surfing experience hadn’t deteriorated so much.

The post mentioned above claims that if I cared about the content I was reading, I wouldn’t block the ads that support that content. On the surface, they have a point. But dig a little deeper, and I think this argument quickly falls apart.

This argument makes a couple of huge assumptions: 1) that each website deserves to make money off the Internet, and 2) that ads are the best way to make that money.

Let’s look at point #1 first. I don’t think that everyone who sets up a website has the right to make money off that website. There’s a lot of stuff on the web, and a lot of it is garbage or regurgitations of other people’s content. Even running AdBlock, I can usually tell when a site primarily supports itself with garish or tacky ads. The content is often insipid or a basic rewriting of something I’ve already seen a dozen times or just plain bad. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve more often than not found the best writing on the web is coming from sites that aren’t getting directly compensated for it by ad revenue, such as bloggers, authors on their own websites and columnists writing for fun.

This reminds me of the content I find in local newspapers. In some newspapers — such as the New York Times, which I read regularly offline and on, and which I pay for — the content is often quite good, interesting, well-written and educational. Go down to the local level, though, and the content becomes one-dimensional, just filler between the ads. No wonder newspapers are dying. I might glance at the local newspaper from time to time, but I feel no need to support it because it doesn’t provide the value I’m looking for.

Now for point #2: I’m not convinced that the advertising model either works online or is appropriate for the Internet. Television is an advertising-supported medium (although to tell the truth, I tend to watch more pay TV than anything). The reason this works is because the barrier to entry is high — you need a lot of money, people and talent to make a good TV show like Lost, for instance — and the payoff in terms of audience numbers is equally high. If I really like a show, then I will sit through its advertisements.

But anyone can start a website in a matter of minutes. The barriers to entry are low. You don’t need a lot of people to do it; you can write it alone, in your spare time. As a result, there is a lot of free content on the web, and some of it is quite good, even if the writer isn’t getting paid.

In fact, some of my favorite sites or blogs are run by people who aren’t making any money directly off their efforts. Many of them are writers who use their sites to promote their books or columns. Others are professionals writing about their work and thus building the reputation of themselves or their companies or nonprofit organizations (or whatever they are promoting). Many are bloggers like myself who write just for the fun of it. Because these content creators have other motivations than increasing ad revenues by getting large numbers of pageviews, their writing is often more passionate, honest and compelling than the content found on ad-supported websites.

There are exceptions that prove the rule. Lowest common denominator sites like FAIL Blog or LOLcats can support themselves handily with ads, and more power to them. For sites like those, ads are a good match. But for the vast number of websites, running ads — especially the kinds of ads that interfere with the content or are the equivalent of late-night infomercials — devalues the content, if it even had value to begin with.

I’m not saying that writers don’t deserve to make a living off their words and their talent. But I am saying that maybe not everyone who sets up shop on the web deserves to make big money off of it. If you offer content that has high value, people will probably support you, either directly or, more likely, indirectly. But if you don’t provide the value, and if you cheapen the content with obnoxious ads, then people will block the ads or move on to some other site. As long as the barriers to entry remain low, and talented people are motivated to provide good content without ads, there will be someplace better to move on to.

“Why Ad Blocking Hurts the Sites You Love” (MetaFilter)
Why Ad Blockers Work (Rob Sayre’s Mozilla Blog)

Doris Lessing and my father slow to accept the Internet as “real” reading and writing

I find it amusing how history continually repeats itself and human nature proves to be so reliably predictable. Those who in their youth were advocates for change, progress and innovation, in their old age denounce the very same change, progress and innovation as a great threat to our culture, forgetting that they were once denounced in the same way.

This is the reaction I had when I read that Doris Lessing used her Nobel Prize acceptance speech to denounce the Internet as “inane,” something that does not promote reading and writing in young people. I have to wonder how much time Lessing has actually spent on the Internet. If she is anything like my father, who regularly complains about the Internet, computers, new-fangled dashboards on cars, cell phones, ipods and anything else remotely related to technology, she has spent very little time online.

Consider this quote from Lessing’s speech: “We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned…” Can’t that same quote be applied to pretty much any time in history? Lessing herself, who has rallied against the unquestioned destiny of women as wives and mothers and who has decried racial inequalities, should welcome the continued questioning of those certainties. Questioning and changing are signs of an evolving society.

It amazes me that a writer would pooh-pooh the democratization that the Web has brought to enabling everyone — not just those who can find a publisher — share their ideas through writing and to freely read and discuss the published ideas of others. The Web has fundamentally changed the exchange of information and ideas, from a one-to-many broadcasting paradigm where what was published was tightly controlled and tailored to the widest possible tastes, to a many-to-many (or some-to-some, depending on the niche) paradigm where everyone can be their own publisher and let each member of the audience decide what’s worth reading. Sure, you have to wade through a lot of the chaff to get to the wheat, but the beauty of it is that each individual gets to decide what’s valuable, not some conglomerate publisher with a bottom line to protect. If anything, the Web has produced more writers and readers — it’s just that they aren’t writing and reading in traditional formats.

Well, the novel hasn’t been around forever either; in fact, it’s a relatively new form. Change is inevitable, and therefore worth embracing. Just as the printing press revolutionized publishing and made the written word more widely available, making it possible for Lessing to have the career she’s had, so too is the Internet a new revolution in the sphere of writing and publishing. Look at the garbage that the major publishers keep trying to feed us — this is a revolution whose time has come. I think the advent of the e-book and publishing on demand, in addition to blogs, will make it possible for more people with something worthwhile to say to reach an audience and have an impact than ever before in our history.