Everybody seems to be a writer these days, but are there any readers? The information explosion is a genie out of the bottle and will continue to mushroom, but who is absorbing it all? Who has the time to read anything any more?
Superfast computers, massive storage and high speed networks at affordable costs have encouraged every Tom, Dick and Harry to be a writer and often a publisher, thanks to tools like Desktop Publisher, Web page creation and, of course, ubiquitous access to the Internet. Just to give one example of quantitative appreciation for this amount of information: Google can search 4.3 billion Web pages (at last count), nearly a billion messages and images in a matter of seconds, while millions of pages are added every day. But are human beings capable of even skimming, let alone reading, absorbing and analyzing even a minute fraction of this information? Granted, Google and similar Web sites are primarily research and reference tools, like a dictionary, and are not meant for reading cover-to-cover or end-to-end (if there is an end).
On what I'll call the information supply side, the world population is increasing, literacy is improving, and people are living longer, with time at their disposal. Many people, even those with mediocre talents, think of themselves as creative writers and try to publish their products. They don't care whether there is any market for their wares or not. A full wallet may not be as much of a motive as satisfying a personal ego. The result is all too often a myriad of unedited, raw and unfiltered low quality material-and no diligent review process. These works are being published both on paper and in cyberspace, and distributed globally at lightning speed.
At the same time, economies are growing; commercial and global trade activities are booming. Political, social and cultural activities are accelerating. All these factors lead to the creation of more and more information in our universe.
On the lack-of-demand side, people have less and less leisure time to read and relax. More and more of their time is taken by long work hours, family obligations, sifting through floods of spam and other chores. They can hardly keep up with the information overload in their vocations. Children and students read, but they also are overstretched with homework and extra-curricular activities. Retired people may have been readers, but failing eyesight and the lure of other activities take their toll.
With torrential supply and limited demand, why are we pouring more into the information pile? Simple answer: We can't stop it; it is human nature. Who is to be blamed for this? All of us or none of us.
* Do we blame technology? I am not a Luddite, but a technologist, myself. Without technology, we wouldn't have the benefits of today- but still we have created an information glut.
* Do we blame the readers? Unfortunately yes, to a degree, because there is demand in our world for crass writing from people who are sometimes drawn to it by slick marketers.
* Do we blame the editors? Only to the extent that often the materials that are published do not go through a sound editing process. Perhaps the publisher hasn't hired an editorial staff or it is poorly trained, lacks experience and is not professional enough.
* Do we blame the marketers or publishers? They are primarily profit-motivated and if their hunch is that there is money to be made in publishing something new at the lowest cost, they will go for it. Since profit is largely driven by volume, they want more material to publish and they pressure successful authors to write more to capitalize on their reputation, hoping for another bestseller. They are pushing the supply envelope, sometimes to the detriment of high quality and responsible writing. We cannot regulate the creation of information. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. At the same time, how can we defend our right to be spared what to us may be information pollution? How can we contain this relentless overload of our visual and auditory senses? The market mechanisms-matching supply and demand, and pricing systems-are not controlling the tide.
We are caught in a Catch-22 situation.
Is there an easy escape from the information monster, or a way to contain it? No. But there are things we might try:
* Rigorous editorial control: This is a form of quality control, preventing some of the fluff. A rigorous review process should be followed before anything gets published (electronically or on paper) anywhere, just as the best book or magazine publishers and newspaper editors used to do. Content providers-from Web sites to traditional media-should have well-qualified editorial as well as marketing staffs and the tools to diligently evaluate both content and reasoning, and copy edit everything before it gets published. This staff also should verify if a demand for the work exists; otherwise, someone must determine if demand can be created.
* Pricing as a regulator: I believe that there should be a pricing mechanism that will be applied to anyone who wants to have creative output published. If one must pay a price to a publisher (or the equivalent in other media) in order for anything to appear (unless the publishing company makes the judgment that it will absorb such charges because it expects to make money from this product) there will be a check on the profusion of publications. Just as proposals for charging for sending e-mail messages, similar to postage, might regulate the flood of e-mail, such a publisher's fee might reduce abuse, and provide the publishing industry with another financial stream. When the freebies are gone, only worthwhile writing for which there is demand (i.e., from which there is money to be made) would survive.
* More efficient search mechanisms: Each of us needs to figure out what information we need, where, when and how we get it in a concise and timely manner, with least effort and with high quality. In a way, we all need to be able to winnow and select in the way the best reference librarians do. We need to be able to zero in on what we need without going through tons of what that particular search would consider to be "garbage"-and yet not overlook pertinent sources, information and ideas. Some of today's search engines are extremely powerful and user-friendly. They are starting to address the problem, and are getting better at it, but humans-who contribute to the problem-also need to contribute to the solution.
All this points to the dire need for information management policy, not only driven by the market forces but also by the continued efforts of national regimes as well as the United Nations. Our challenge is to find a balance between the various sides: information supply vs. demand; freedom of expression vs. freeing of readers from abuse; marketing success vs. creative excellence; pricing as a market regulatory mechanism vs. an incentive for creative and high quality writing. An imperative in all this is effective editorial control and integrity as well as responsible publishing.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp.7,20-21.