A smarter network than you?

Weinberger makes the point, over and over again, that “knowledge is becoming a property of the network, rather than of individuals who know things, of objects that contain knowledge, and of the traditional institutions that facilitate knowledge” (182). By attacking our epistemological assumptions, Weinberger is showing us just what the internet is capable of providing seekers of knowledge. He goes out of his way to disavow “technodeterminism,” but holds that “there are some basic elements of the Net experience shared by almost anyone… that bear directly on how we understand knowledge” (174). Although Weinberger then describes several attributes of the internet which affect its scholarly utility, they are all more or less presented in a positive light. A truly objective, non-technodeterminist viewpoint, however, would be able to acknowledge that the internet’s evolution of discursive modes is a lateral shift which brings many potential problems as well as benefits. That these changes affect the very nature of our perceptions of knowledge makes this topic pertinent to all.

The abundance of material online creates a situation where paywalls, often the lifeblood of any publishing firm hoping to provide fair compensation for decent writing, lead to information “ghost towns”. Weinberger writes, rightly, that most people encountering a paywall are likely to use another similar, albeit free, source (175). There is nothing about the internet which makes it fundamentally biased towards open-source everything. Content creators will still need to eat, yet the abundance of similar-yet-slightly-inferior content means that audiences will have no real reason to pay. Additionally, Weinberger states that “links erode authorial control” (177), by providing any given work’s source material at the click of a mouse. Although facilitating quick cross-reference of source material is vital to verifying a scholar’s work, links can just as easily be used for cherry-picked counter-arguments and straw men. Ask any of the tutors at Oxford — the learning process frequently requires interface with one single authority. The idea is to digest the syncretic work of one, not only with more exposure and expertise, but optimally situated to guide the learner through their own particular society.

Oxford gets brought up by Weinberger himself, when he points out that “a notice that 99.9 percent of an eBay seller’s 14,000 transactions have been rated as satisfactory is a better guide than knowing that the seller teaches at Oxford” (188). However, this is a clear false equivalency. Weinberger mentions earlier that books came embodied with their own kinds of authoritative metadata, simply within the quality of their binding. What, then, could an eBay seller’s satisfaction rating compare to the physical market where you are able to fully inspect any and all goods you wish to purchase? True, the internet is eroding traditional notions of credentials. But the principles behind credentialing remain: there is a need to verify the truth by providing a certain richness of metadata.

Comprehensive metadata for the whole web is still just a dream, however. Even if the idea of a Semantic Web formed through “linked data” were available (187), it’s not clear that real knowledge would be more readily available — the network would simply be able to tell which knowledge would be most relevant to your own particular perspective. Although Weinberger has some bright ideas on how the internet is changing the nature of knowledge, he spends too little time pondering how this fundamental shift might, in many ways, leave people in the dark.

It’s All Just Reading

In class, I made the assumption that distant reading only refers to the digital methods of textual analysis we’re being introduced to. When Dr. Purcell corrected me, saying that distant reading might also apply to the wide breadth of reading a traditional researcher focused on a particular canon does, the issue got a bit more confused for me. But it makes sense: the types of connections drawn, coupled with the far-sighted biases of a human working with at least a shelf’s worth of text, do indeed qualify some traditional, physical-book readings as “distant”. Where, then, the line between close and distant reading lies, I’m not so sure. What’s more, I’m not sure it’s very important.

Interpretation of readings is highly subjective. Whether or not close or distant reading is good or bad depends entirely on the situation and desired outcome. I think in this day and age, it would be fair to say that any type of reading is “good”. But good for what? And how?

Close reading, forging an intimate connection with a text through sustained, focused attention to its subtleties, is probably best for individuals looking for singular diversions and/or wisdom. But historical inertia has steadily pushed us further and further away from the raw essence of a text. What, exactly, was lost when humans stopped memorizing and reciting vast tracts of oral literature, like the Iliad or Odyssey? Something in the rhythm of the words, the rhyming, their specific cadences and patterns. Something intangible that nonetheless added important meanings to the text. A similarly undefinable quality of the text was probably lost when, in the Middle Ages, readers shifted from mouthing out the words they read to reading them silently. Now, people complain that e-books are stealing the distinct odor of books, especially old books, which has spiced the study of bibliophiles the world over for millennia. All of these qualities are comprehensible in a system of “close reading”, and they speak to the principal benefits of close reading: the ability to envelop the reader in an all-encompassing world, to stimulate not just the mind but the body itself. Texts have become disembodied in our digital age, to the point that there are no real qualitative differences between the words of Marcus Aurelius on Project Gutenburg and the words of a middle-school blogger on Tumblr. This may seem like a strange thought, but considering the mostly subjective benefits of close reading, I think it’s relevant.

Distant reading, on the other hand — the work of scholars for millennia — offers different benefits. Distant reading allows contextualization and synthesis of many disparate texts and ideas. We go from a small ship exploring the vagaries of the coastline day by day, to a plane with a bird’s eye view, or even a satellite taking full-resolution scans with each orbit. The analogy makes even more sense when we realize the cartographers on the boat would be able to give us information on the type of fish available, the nuances of the ocean current, the exact quality of the weather and many more things, while the plane or satellite could only give us a less detailed, though far more broad and probably accurate, idea of the nature of the coastline. Distant reading is perfect for evaluation and analysis of many different texts. However, it has a downside in the sheer scale of its domain: the more information you have, the harder it is to put it all in a comprehensible order, and the easier it is to draw false conclusions from what’s before you*. Still, distant reading is great if you’re trying to understand a large body of text. Virtually every class I’ve ever taken has relied on distant reading, as the professor tells us the many interesting and relevant things s/he has picked up in her/his research. Distant reading, then, is probably better for groups trying to make sense of textual collections that no single individual wants to read themselves.

*This website, Spurious Correlations, gives a great example of one of the pitfalls of distant reading: http://www.tylervigen.com/

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.