…so much information.*
TMI. That’s our problem in a nutshell, folks. Call it what you will – Glut, (love that quote in quote on page 6 of Alex Wright’s book from Richard Saul Wurman – ‘tsunami of data’), “growing mountain of research” (as Vannevar Bush termed it back in 1945), the “Big Data” problem, the attention economy – whatever terms you use to describe it, we’ve got a problem, Houston.
I like Wright’s big picture look at the history of information and our increasingly complex attempts to “master” the ever-growing volume of information we humans have produced in various forms throughout the ages. It’s always nice to know that a problem isn’t really new – just different or at a different scale. And that’s the key term – scale.
“An unprecedented surge of individual expression”
That’s the story of the digital technology, according to Wright (p 230), but really it’s the story of humanity. We write. All that writing, that recording of what we know and what we think and how we feel, has formed a [more or less] permanent record of human experience since the acquisition of literacy by [almost] the entire species. It’s led to the problem that all these authors are grappling with and I love the way that we’re all trying to come up with the most perfect technological means for managing our information. No matter how many times I read Bush’s As We May Think, I am always impressed by his imagination – notice that he describes the fax machine, algorithmic programming, Wikipedia, Google Glasses, and, of course, the Internet itself, long before any of those things existed!
His main concern is still our concern: “publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” His memex is the solution he envisions to this problem and his description of it is certainly not sci-fi-seeming to us:
a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility
Nor is his conception of its information management structure – a structure that is clearly predicated on linking (the sine qua non) of the World Wide Web:
It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.
But, I hate to tell ya this, Vannevar (taking the liberty of using your first name just so I can say, Vannevar), the memex (or what we call the Internet) has probably only made the problem you were trying to solve worse. Back in the day, here’s what you said:
To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution.
But the problem we have is that last bit – about typesetting and printing and distributing. See, we can do all that now with just some clicks. We don’t need an editor, a publisher, a big company who can make sure our little text sees the light of day. As I type this in the “Add New Post” space on WordPress, I see that big blue “Publish” button and I know that as soon as I click that thing, this text is out there online. So we’re adding to the record at an unprecedented rate (that’s that whole “tsunami” thing). And yet we’re still left with that problem of readers finding it in the vast ocean of blog posts, discussion forums, social media threads, and myriad other self-publishing platforms that have arisen in our digital wonderland of the Web.
“something is bound to come of it”
So I hope we can put this problem of information management into conversation with the history/evolution of reading and and the book that we’ll be studying this semester in Writing for the Web in a productive way. This is all related and is all critical for us to consider as writer/designers of digital texts. We’ve got to think carefully not only about how to create engaging and valuable digital texts, but about how to archive and “manage” them in the larger ecosystem of information that we are working in.
I think that Naomi Baron’s concerns about digital reading in Words Onscreen are, at least in part, about the problem of information glut. And this idea that we’re not reading (as much, as well, as intensively, as comprehensively) onscreen (aka, the tl;dr problem) is tied directly to the attention to information ratio. Richard Lanham frames this as The Economics of Attention and argues that the scarce commodity in this economy is human attention. As a rhetorician, it’s his job to think about how to get people to listen, to attend to ideas, and, as students of rhetoric in this course, it’s our job as well.
So, here are some things I want to suggest we put on our list of things to work on as writer/designers of digital texts this semester:
thinking about how to use metadata and other techniques like tagging and categorizing to manage information and make it searchable, findable, and connected to the larger Web of information we are all building as writers for the Web
considering the long-term issues of archiving digital texts – and here we can learn from our association with the Special Collections Libraries this semester since they know a lot about this subject and the problem of making archived material findable and making sure it survives as part of the record of human experience
figuring out negotiate the scarce commodity of human attention while recognizing some of the damage that has already been done by the Internet/Web’s license to say what[ever] we think and make that public and published and permanent
“The pressure’s on the screen”
Do we go back to stricter gatekeeping mechanisms and hierarchical structures (as is suggested in Zeynep Tufecki’s piece in Wired magazine’s special “Free Speech” issue that was just published this week and that I recommend you read from cover-to-cover) as a way to control the amount of information and ideas being put out there? Do we dream newer, cooler, faster, more effective “memexes” into being? Do we just shut up and listen – read more and write less? I don’t know the answers, but I’m excited about working with my class this semester to struggle with the questions. I have a feeling we may not solve the problems, but we’ll come up with some productive ideas.
*The title/first line of this post is from the lyrics to this song from Duran Duran’s 1993 album (known as the “Wedding Album” – one of my faves of theirs). I love D² and consider them one of the most underrated rock bands of all time. I’ve seen them in concert more than once. Don’t judge me. Here’s the video (and here’s a link to the remarkably relevant lyrics):
link to Plato’s Phaedrus