Saturday, May 13, 2006

500 billion channels and nothing on

Have you noticed that it’s getting worse?

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 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 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 , or on the Web—and all of the 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 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. 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 machine, but increasing dramatically with the advent of , 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 and 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.

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.


Anonymous said...

I agree entirely but the people involved probably have no idea what an
editor does anyway. To them, an editor is yet another member of the
establishment trying to squash their creativity. What infuriates me is this
feeling that everyone's opinion has equal weight on every topic. As it
stands, poor writing, spelling and editing all serve as valuable makers of


Anonymous said...

What I found excellent about Kelly's article was its thorough overview of the copyright and business-model issues. I hadn't been following the Google thing closely so didn't understand what people were arguing about, and now I do.

The quality management elements, however, are conspicuously absent. And the editorial role is only one unaddressed facet. My friend who originally sent me the article said, "...basic problem is OCR. Searching for 'thc' in Google Print yields brazillions of hits, where clearly 'the' was the word scanned, but yielded 'thc' to OCR."

That's pretty scary. I had already been wondering about how durable -- and vulnerable -- the digital storage medium is.

Then there's the question of how people will be able to protect their intellectual property under the new reality.

Then there's what I consider pure myth: that all the people around the world with poor access to books will benefit, since the same people also have poor access to computers and a huge percentage of them don't give a damn about reading or learning or finding information.

I don't think the printed book will ever go away entirely but its mass availability and price will probably be affected. Things might even come full circle and books become a high-value item again, with editors becoming esteemed, well-paid professionals!

Dick Margulis said...


Thanks for your comment (you, too, Bruce).

I agree with most of what you wrote. I have a quibble with one point, though.

I think the world has always had only a tiny minority of people who "give a damn about reading or learning or finding information." The thing is, though, those people are pretty uniformly distributed throughout the world's population. So I do think that wide availability of information is a democratizing force. Just look at what the shrinking of the world, first with telephone, then with fax, then with email, then with the Web, then with the blogosphere, has already accomplished for liberation movements worldwide. Look at globalization and outsourcing, too. (I'm not suggesting these developments are all seen as positive by everyone; I'm just looking at how the world has shrunk in the last hundred years.)

So I think people around the world will be affected and a lot of them will benefit, just as others will be hurt, to be sure.

All I'm saying is that it is not a non-event. You're right that it's a myth they will all benefit. But not because they will all be unaffected.

Kali said...

Wow. I really enjoy your blog. I really wish you were still writing :)

Dick Margulis said...


What makes you think I'm not still writing?