I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s new offering “Free”. Anderson’s arguments are well-known to anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with the memes floating about on Slashdot and other tech sites. His explanations, however, seem sub-par.
Anderson is right when he says that information will flow freely through the Internet. Information is almost always represented as text and images. The internet is the ideal distribution system for both. Even in the “information nuclear war situation”, newspapers could be swapped as easily as people swap comic books. (More easily, even, with new scanner & OCR technology). Getting upset about this is like getting upset about water going down a drain; it is the inevitable outcome, given the situation.
I wanted to talk about the loss of information that will come with the demise of various newspapers, but I found myself unable to argue credibly for that idea. The only information I find of value is contextualized and given proportionate weighting to its importance. Both these qualities are lacking in many newspapers, such as my hometown’s own Montreal Gazette. The Gazette is prone to rabble-rousing over the Anglophone/Francophone issue, offers little in-depth coverage of municipal issues, and the importance of their front-page articles is suspect. The reporters at the Gazette don’t do much in the way of investigative reporting, despite the indelible scent of corruption that permeates Quebec. How do 99% of government jobs go to Francophones? What’s the real story behind the construction industry in Quebec? Why are the roads falling apart? Is it another Olympic Stadium-style debacle? You won’t hear a peep about any of that. However, even the slightest symbolic acts in regards to the middle east easily become front page news. (I wasn’t aware that Israel or Palestine were such important trade partners for Quebec!) Japan isn’t much better for the media. Yesterday I found a front-page story in the daily Asahi about a man being questioned for moonlighting as a bartender while working for some backwaters prefectural office. Is this really critical news? (To be fair, the Japanese press breaks a lot more political scandals than the Canadian press).
Certain collections of information will always have value. The Wall Street Journal has deep connections to the highest Ayatollahs of the church of Capitalism. Their choice of a front page article is of as much importance as the presence of a politician in the pages of the Soviet propaganda vehicle Pravda. The value of having instant access to the paper (and access to the minds that decide what the market is worth) will always have value. However, the vast majority of “informational journalism” simply cannot survive since the information presented lacks insight and is worthless (or is even harmful, in the case of yellow journalism or “fear-based” journalism).
I do find it somewhat ironic that a preacher of “Free” feels so strongly about his beliefs that he offers his book for sale. A more principled position would have him do what this restaurateur did (courtesy of the cool people @ Tokyomango). I do find that most people who want “Free” want “Free” from other people. I wonder why.
Sometimes I wonder if the only things that will have value in the future will be food and our reputations.