500 billion channels and nothing on
I’m not talking about television. One of the great improvements in my life that came bundled with my second marriage was living in a house where the tv is in the basement. I am weaned from my bored-divorced-guy-two-bedroom-apartment addiction to television. Now I doubt that the set is on for twenty hours a year.
No, I’m talking about the Web. It is no secret that Google’s success has led to the explosion of the search engine optimization (SEO) industry and that the search and SEO camps are in an ongoing battle to outsmart each other. But meanwhile, for us users, the utility of search is diminished when so many sites (blogs included) are information-free decoys designed for nothing more than attracting click-through to ads.
This creates a huge noise-to-signal ratio that only gets worse as the total number of Web pages continues to mushroom.
Add to that the existing conundrum of how to determine the reliability of what you read—in a book, in a periodical, in a news group, or on the Web—and all of the Utopian projections for the networked future start to look a little tarnished at the margins.
Tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine has a cover article by Kevin Kelly, a founding editor of Wired, titled “Scan This Book.” In it he talks about the hyperconnectedness of knowledge that will result from the digitization of the world&rsquo's libraries and the resulting acceleration of human fulfillment and economic advance. Marshall McLuhan’s vision fulfilled!
Kelly touches on the current skirmish between publishers and Google, and he asserts that content creators will find a way to adapt to this new technological regime (without suggesting how they might make a livelihood in the process). But he does not address the question of quality management at all.
You still need an editor
Actually, you need an ever-increasing number of editors. Since the advent of the Mimeograph machine, but increasing dramatically with the advent of desktop publishing, pretty much anyone has been able to publish any sort of drivel unmediated by the publishing process. In other words, the gate to publishing represented by the cost of moving words from brain to page vanished.
Today anyone can have Web sites and blogs, can publish ebooks and POD books—under a real name or any number false identities—without review or intervention by any other being, human or robotic. Text presented as factual has likely never been checked for accuracy by anyone and may be subject to corruption even if it has been (as in the case of Wikipedia). As a result, the signal-to-noise ratio is approaching zero.
Luddite that I am, the idea of beautifully printed and bound books disappearing in favor of totally digital publishing does not particularly appeal to me. I enjoy the feel and smell of a well made book and the look of a beautifully designed page. But whether books do or do not become obsolete, I know I will still have a job. Without editors to evaluate, filter, sort, correct, and clarify, all those trillions of bytes that are or will be available are going to be useless.
I am not going to argue that you should not publish your next book without running your copy by me, because either you already understand that you need an editor or you don’t; if you are narcissistic enough to believe that pearls drop from your lips when you speak, I know I will not be able to convince you otherwise. My argument here is not really with you; it’s with those who think that more searchable text is the same thing as more usable information and that civilization’s advance will accelerate despite the increasing amount of time it takes to find anything useful in the gray glop.