No such thing as free information?

“The fiction writer and activist Cory Doctorow, among others, has succeeded commercially, as well as in the impact of his ideas, by giving away online access to his books even as he sells paper copies.” – p. 109

 

I read Little Brother a couple years ago, so whenever Doctorow’s name is mentioned, my ears perk up. This novel, on top of being a YA-accessible (not a bad thing!) bildungsroman romp through a near-future San Francisco, has a lot to say about encryption, and the nature of our data-saturated lives in general.

This quote intrigues me. I remember being astonished when Radiohead’s In Rainbows was released as a set-your-own-price (i.e. free) digital download. The album was a huge success — critically, commercially, and financially — and I thought we’d entered a new paradigm in content sharing. After all, despite what the RIAA might want you think, music pirating has only helped the music industry flourish, as more fans are able to find more bands that they love enough to actually want to pay for the album. Unfortunately, eight years out, and most artists are still selling their new albums for $15 in the store, $10 on iTunes (U2’s annoyingly-automatically-on-your-iTunes album aside). It might be too soon to tell, but it seems Doctorow’s libertine notions of the nature of information are not coming to fruition. At least, not if you read the title of his new book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. 

And I admit, I’ve only read the title. I actually bought the book on Amazon today in class when Mr. Edson mentioned the book (yay for in-class macbooks!). I’d never heard of it before, but I immediately knew I had to read it. The title, which may be only ironically pessimistic, does a good job of explaining the abysmal condition of online information-purveyors we discussed in class today. Information doesn’t want to be free, because information is power. And power has always been carefully limited. Maybe. I hope not. But it makes a kind of Machiavellian sense to me.

Long-form, Attention, and Darwin

We should be able to start at A and reason our way to Z, in careful, measured steps. This long-form argument is what we’ve taken to be human reasoning at its best.

So, what if the Internet is shortening our attention spans? Suppose we can no longer get from A to B without being distracted by a catch-the-monkey ad or a link to the latest gossip? How we are ever going to think the thoughts that step us well beyond what we already know?

If we’re going to worry about losing long-form thinking, we should be quite clear about what it looks like. One of the greatest of long-form works was published in 1859. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a single magnificent argument spread out across fifteen chapters.

This passage, from the beginning of Chapter 6 of Too Big to Know, was interesting for a number of reasons. First, Weinberger introduces the phrase long-form thinking. Long-form thinking, as Weinberger describes it, is a logical progression from one assumption to the next in order to arrive at some conclusion. Weinberger suggests that this form of thinking is what humans believe is the best form of human reasoning. This certainly makes sense. Logically moving from one step to another and basing future assumptions on previous steps is the simplest and clearest logic.

The next part that I found interesting was the problem that Weinberger introduces for this section. The middle paragraph poses the question of whether any useful thinking or working can be done when there is so much seemingly useless content accessible on the Internet. This is a valid question. There are ads on nearly every website, which redirect to other websites. Even when avoiding ads, there are countless links found in places like Twitter and Facebook, places that people sometimes only mean to check. Doing research for a class can be derailed very quickly by only a few clicks. It’s an interesting question, and one that Weinberger further addresses later in the chapter.

Finally, the last paragraph brings forth the example of Darwin’s most famous works, On the Origin of Species. Weinberger states that Darwin’s work is a great example of long-form thinking. He continues by listing the contents of the book’s chapters. The summaries of the chapters quickly tell the “story” of the book, in a way that shows how complete of an argument it is. I found this part interesting because by showing one famous work broken down into its core argument, it led me to wonder if there are other works that can be broken down in such a way.

Every Fact Has an Equal and Opposite Reaction

“We are witnessing a version of Newton’s Second Law: On the Net, every fact has an equal and opposite reaction. Those reactive facts may be dead wrong. Indeed, when facts truly contradict, at least one of them has to be wrong. But this continuous, multi-sided, linked contradiction of every fact changes the nature and role of facts for our culture” (Too Big to Know by David Weinberger, pg. 40)

This is an interesting point brought up by David Weinberger. It used to be that facts were in print and they were accepted as true because making books took time. Many “experts” looked over the facts and approved them, so we accepted these to be the end of any argument.

With the internet, everyone is able to input their opinion. There is just too much input to be able to “fact check” everything that is put onto the net. So with that comes a problem, we will inevitably get bad input from some sources. People are used to accepting what they read from books as the definite answer, soon we will have to transition to a world of being cautious of the sources we receive our information. We will have to become the filter to insure of the truth of the information, unless we are on a credited website where “experts” are used to proof information.

An interesting side to this is where we are at in our life and our experience with the internet. If we computer literate, then we can input our opinion and perhaps be exposed to wrong facts. Does this mean that those that are not able to traverse the web have a better understanding of what is fact and what is not? Probably not, those that are able to navigate the internet will be exposed to more right facts as well as wrong facts. This points back to the point above that we will need to be able to filter the wrong from the right more on our own.

Now should this be viewed as a bad thing? With so much input, surely those that know the truth will outweigh those that don’t. A consensus will come from the crowd of what is fact and there will be no misleading information. For other ideas that aren’t so concrete, this world of everybody being allowed to submit their input could be a good thing. Through a process of people’s ideas we could come together to create something great, something that isn’t limited to geography or political boundaries or even language. Maybe we can come up with new facts together and share them with others around the world.

Post 1

Knowledge is taking on the shape of the Net—that is, the Internet. Of all the different communication networks we’ve built for ourselves, with all their many shapes—the history of communication networks includes rings, hubs-and-spokes, stars, and more—the Net is the messiest. That gives it a crucial feature: It works at every scale.

Of course, the Net can scale that large only because it doesn’t have edges within which knowledge has to squeeze. No edges mean no shape. And no shape means that networked knowledge lacks what we have long taken to be essential to the structure of knowledge: a foundation

I really enjoy this quote not only because it rather concisely breaks down the structure of the internet, but also because it breaks down the previous notions of what knowledge needed. It personally makes me want to explore further into how knowledge is shaped by its medium – specifically how the knowledge on the internet was shaped back in a time when it wasn’t limitless. Of course, in it’s origin, the internet was a place of academia, and as its space grew, so did decrease its (exclusive) filtration (as opposed to forward filtration).

In a wild tangent, I found the difference between books and the internet to be very similar to the differences in the growth of cities. For example NYC and OKC – both need to house huge populations, but the former, in its limited space, chose to build up, while the latter, with its limitless land, began its urban sprawl outwards.

The reason I find the dawn of the internet so fascinating is because it’s akin to a city that starts with very limited space, but as time progresses, begins to rapidly gain land – a situation that I don’t think exists in the real world (although, of course, if it does, please let me know). As this course progresses and we understand further how knowledge as a whole has been affected by internet and technology, I look forward to expanding this ridiculous metaphor.

Building Smart Rooms and Not The End of Culture

The Internet represents the ascension of yahoos, a victory lap for plagiarists, the end of culture, the beginning of the dark ages inhabited by glassy-eyed chronic masturbators who judge truth by the number of thumbs up, wisdom by the number of views, and knowledge by whatever is most fun to believe … Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms – that is, how to build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider.

This is one of the first things that Weinberger mentions in his book Too Big To Know.  This statement really captivated me because of the total truth behind it. Think about Wikipedia. While it can be an incredibly accurate and up-to-date resource, other times, it can be hijacked by some “yahoos.” Some pleasure in misguiding others just as some work for self-gain.

With the creation of the World Wide Web, we have an incredible tool at our disposal. What used to take days or months to spread around the world can now be distributed in a few seconds.  This includes both valuable information and misinformation. For example, just a few weeks ago, the rumor that Mike Stoops would be leaving OU for Louisiana State flooded social media. One person was behind this (granted, he was just doing his job and really has no liability). One post, one tweet, or one article can spread like wildfire in today’s society.

Many might wonder what good the Internet does when situations like this occur. While things can spread like wildfire, normally there is one thing that can always be done: checking other sources. With how huge the web and social media is in our day in time, a major event will likely be covered from every side. If there is only one source, you might be able to conclude that that news is baseless, a myth, or a total lie. If the idea is from multiple places, you could conclude that there is a basis to it.

The moral of the story here is this: the Internet can be either good or bad; it is up to the user which one it is.

Blog Post #1

“Filters no longer filter out. They filter forward, bringing their results to the front. What doesn’t make it through a filter is still visible and available in the background.”

While reading and coming across this observation that the author makes, I couldn’t help but to think how true this statement resonates in regards of how we obtain information on the web. Information is so easily attainable nowadays that looking up important material on your search engine will bring you the most relevant and viewed articles on the first few pages while the most irrelevant and least viewed articles are usually found further down a few pages but they still remain accessible. Though filtering out helps with validity/credibility of information posted on the web, I can see how filtering forward can cause an issue of presenting people with true, cold, hard facts about information of which they are searching. However, I just think it is very interesting how we can now access information that could either be relevant/irrelevant to whatever it is that we have typed into our search and still be able to access irrelevant material that Alvin Toffler proposed would be too much information for us to process and therefore cause our brains to go into information overload. But I understand Toffler’s point because of the tendency to become overloaded with information is so much easier now since we’re filtering information forward instead of filtering it out.

Too Big to Know: 1st post

Page 116

‘Long-form writing is often a better instrument of understanding when it is embedded in a web of ideas, conversations, and arguments, all linked and traversable.  The writings of Charles Darwin, Nicholas Carr, and Jay Rosen are more useful, understandable, verifiable, and up to date because of the links that point into them and out from them.  The links not only let us easily engage with the works, they show us how the rest of our culture is engaging with them.’

When I read this paragraph I wondered if the links that are now being imbedded in long form arguments might actually be making it harder to completely read the argument.   I can see the allure of an author wanting to address objections as they arise rather than anticipating them, but I wonder if linking away from your topic increases the number of people who will stop reading halfway through and not return.  Although it is not a completely analogous example, I thought of looking up an article on Wikipedia coming across a term that you are unfamiliar with and, since it is hyperlinked, you click on it and discover the history or meaning or connotation of the word and then come across another unknown and continue to fall down the rabbit hole until it is time for bed or other responsibilities rear their heads.  Long form arguments are also subject to the intrusiveness of the internet.  If one is reading a lengthy article or chapter and has multiple tabs open, a new email or instant message could break their concentration with important work issues or funny pictures of cats.

I don’t know if this line of thought is correct because many people are already having deep discussions in response to arguments posted in online forums and blogs as can be seen in the author’s examples elsewhere in this chapter.  I may be thinking too literally and projecting my own issues with researching issues on the internet as I find it is very easy to become distracted with all the content available.