Thursday, January 20, 2011

Anything Overload

Here’s something to think about, and I believe it goes far beyond what Clay Shirky originally intended: When we suffer from Anything Overload, it’s not because something’s happened to the Anything that’s suddenly overwhelming us, but because the filter we’d been using to shelter us from the Anything just broke.

Here’s the video:

In this speech, given last year at an Internet exposition in New York City, Shirky focuses on the phenomenon of information overload, but insists – successfully, I believe – that we’re not in an information overload situation because of the words, images, video and sounds flooding out of our Internet ports and televisions, but because the filters we’ve had in place to prevent such floods have broken, whether by ourselves or by others.

He gives some excellent examples:

First, he maintains that we’ve been on information overload since the advent of the printing press. Up until then, he argues, publishing anything was so time-consuming and cost-prohibitive, the great unwashed masses were protected from it all. When Gutenberg came along, suddenly the cost to publish diminished incredibly, as did the cost of buying the end product.

There’s one filter broken.

Other filters, however, suddenly came into being. Publishing, he says, came with a certain amount of risk. The printer had to print a bunch of copies at a time unless he wanted to go through the process of laying the type again, so the publisher had to risk that what was printed would be bought. So in came an economic filter that judged what was being printed by quality – not everything that came into the print shop, or the publishing house, got printed, because not all of it was worth the risk of printing up.

Then came the Internet, which reduced the costs of publishing astronomically. “There’s no economic logic that says you have to filter for quality before you publish,” Shirky says of the Internet.

There’s another filter broken.

Here’s one I thought about:

About a week ago, I wrote a post about the Gabrielle Goffords shooting, and some of the trouble that occurred with the media putting out bad information as the story broke. In the post, I quoted an Associated Press story which quoted Dan Rather in this context:
Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather said that if he were covering the story in the 1970s and 1980s, he would not likely have gone with the NPR report. But if he were in the anchor chair in 2011, he probably would have.

“The pressure is immediate and almost crushing on you and your news organization to match that,” he said. “Mostly what you hear are sets all over the world going to your competition and computers, handheld or otherwise, going to a different site.”
Back in the day, I’m sure, they got bad or incorrect information fed to them at the national news desks – certainly there was lots of confusion, say, about the assassinations of the Kennedys, riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, and other events, but Rather implies they had filters back in the day that helped them curb their enthusiasm.

Bad and incorrect information still flies into the newsrooms today, but, again, Rather implies today it would have gotten out. Not because something in the information changed, but because the filter used back in the day broke.

So what’s the solution?

Here’s what Shirky suggests: We don’t ask what has happened to the information we’re getting, but we do ask ourselves what filter just broke. We look to see what can be done to replace the filter.

Identifying broken filters sounds easy, but I’m fairly certain it isn’t, and fixing them is going to be even more challenging.

With the economic logic gone with Internet publishing, we see that anyone can publish pretty much anything – as evidenced by about 99 percent of the content of my blogs: Trash. And that’s okay. I’m the principal audience of this blog, and if getting some of the trash out of my brain helps the good stuff flow out, then I’m better off, right? Perhaps what I – and most other bloggers – need to do is establish some other kind of logic to replace the economic logic that no longer makes sense in the I Can Publish Anything model.

Replacing economics with quality seems iffy, but that’s a start. I’ve already shelved several pieces that I realize were just too hair-brained to put anywhere. And frankly, I’ve seen the quality filter can be pretty porous – there are plenty of writers out there getting published who write like I do: Not well at all. (Maybe that’s evidence of yet another broken filter.)

Privacy as a filter, as Shirky points out, isn’t much of a driver any more either.

So I don’t know how to fix it. I’ll give it some thought. But don’t expect much.

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