I think a lot about how the Internet has radically changed civilization since about 1995. Making information digital (as opposed to physical – bound in books and microfilm, where you have to leave your home or office to go get it, or sort through old stacks of newspaper) has provided the following:
Through the web, we now have access to expertise. Here’s a first-world problem: Last night, as a handyman was stripping the old decaying wallpaper off our living room walls, Bernardo and I were wondering if we could replace it with Venetian plaster, which looks a bit like marble. After watching several YouTube videos, we decided that this would be more work than we were willing to invest right now, and settled for a simple paint job. Last summer, Bernardo and our handyman spent a great deal of time poring over videos about how to install a flagstone patio.
In a developing country, obviously, access to expertise is far more useful and disruptive.
Immediacy is something we’ve grown to take for granted but we used to have to wait to have our questions answered! I recall dialing the New York Public Library’s reference desk, and receiving a busy signal, for hours. I sometimes had to wait days for an answer to a question. Now…we Google our question and get an immediate response. Again, in a developing country, immediacy is nothing short of miraculous. And disruptive.
The sheer volume of information on the Internet has led to many, many conversations about curation and authority control. In the tiny town where I grew up, we could at least entertain the notion of going to the library, starting at “A” and going to “Z”. We had a scarcity problem, not an abundance problem. But now, for most users, the Internet is pragmatically infinite. It’s a question of finding the right resource.
And in many cases, the exact right resource isn’t even that important. I could watch any one of a number of knitting videos to find out how to do a kitchener stitch. I could consult with any number of websites to find out the best place in my yard to plant my herbs. We could regard that sort of information as a commodity, like wheat or natural gas. One brand is roughly as good as another.
But if I want to find out the correct time my home-canned chicken broth should be in the canner, and at what pressure, I probably want to stick with the USDA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation, since they have a vested interest in making sure US citizens don’t poison themselves. The role of a publisher (versus that of an indiscriminate broadcaster) is to back the information they publish with a certain amount of authority. To weight that information with meaning. I trust the USDA on food preservation more than I trust Mrs. Delafield’s daughter’s website (I don’t even know Mrs. Delafield, and for all I know her daughter has poisoned half the county with her canned tomatoes).
For a better take on a publisher’s role in an era of informational commodity, go here. Meanwhile, I keep thinking about the impact of access, immediacy and volume on people whose lives have been defined by having none of these. The commodification of information itself is massively disruptive. What will happen when knowledge is easily and readily available? How will civilization proceed when ignorance is optional?