I’m busy working on my book on the Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, and thinking about implications for the information economy. In the process, I dug up a blog post from 2004, which reproduces an article I wrote in 1995 (I can’t remember if I managed to get it published). An interesting aside is a reference to Camille Paglia, a big name back then, who did the whole Jordan Peterson thing earlier and better, though I’m obviously not a fan of either.
With 25 years of hindsight, I was quite pleased with how my 1995 piece stood up. But it would be interesting to see how others respond.
h.3 From 2004
Following up on a discussion at Crooked Timber, I looked at this much-linked piece by Camille Paglia, and was struck by its dated references to television and the 60s. She goes on to talk about computers, but apparently sees the computer as nothing more than a turbocharged TV set. This impelled me to dig out a piece I wrote nearly ten years ago, making the point that far from privileging visual media, the computer, and particularly the Internet are contributing to a new golden age of text. Blogs weren’t thought of when I wrote this piece, but the argument anticipates them, I think.
fn1. Oddly enough, although the main argument is a restatement of positions that were familiar 50 years ago, the piece is full of references to the young, as though the current generation of young adults has been, in some way, more saturated in TV than were the baby booomers.
h3. The Coming Golden Age of Text
The recent explosion of interest in the ‘information superhighway’ has spawned renewed predictions of the demise of text-based culture. Some prophets of the multimedia future such as Nicholas Negroponte, welcome this development, though expressing regret that literate people over thirty will effectively be disenfranchised from the new culture. Others, like Dale Spender express alarm that women, having finally gained broadly equal access to text-based culture, will be excluded from the new computer-based centres of power and influence. But at no time since the heyday of Marshall McLuhan has there been such a consensus that text is on the way out.
In reality, the explosive growth of the Internet, and particularly its most recent manifestation, the World Wide Web, holds out the promise of a new golden age of text. The very vocabulary of the Web tells the story. The starting point for Web exploration is a Home Page, from which you use a program, called a browser, to explore other pages. Bookmarks are used to keep track of your favorite pages. Everywhere, metaphors from the world of text abound.
Many of these pages contain graphics. The best of them can resemble a medieval manuscript, the worst a hastily flung together ‘coffee-table’ book. But in the vast majority of cases the text is primary. The graphical capacities of the computer network have the potential to liberate text from the grey conventions of industrial-era printing, and make reading a sensuously appealing experience. But it is still text.
There are basic economic reasons for this. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in computer terms it takes up the same space as a hundred thousand. The cost difference is even more dramatic with video. A few minutes of talking head video, with perhaps two hundred words of information content, can take up the same space (and require the same transmission time) as an entire book. Over time, the steady reduction in the cost of computing and communications will erode the importance of this factor. But for some years to come, the time-lag associated with downloading images will discourage most Internet users from visiting pages consisting primarily of pictures.
Differences in the cost of producing material will be more durable. A single minute of an average Hollywood movie costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. Even with the cost reductions offered by computer technology, the production of video at anything above home movie standard requires lots of time, technical skill and expensive equipment. For the past forty years or so, the high cost of producing video has been offset by the availability of cheap and instantaneous distribution through broadcast and cable TV networks. There is already more channel capacity than there is worthwhile content to fill it. The advent of the information superhighway will not change this. Its most alluring promise, as far as video is concerned, appears to be the capacity to dial up our favorite episodes of Leave it to Beaver or Gilligan’s Island whenever we choose.
By contrast, the Internet makes a huge difference to the distribution of text, by liberating it from the confines of print. Already, bulky, inaccessible and often out-of-date reference volumes have been replaced by instant on-line access to databases. An academic journal process that took a couple of years to publish articles is being supplanted by a preprint distribution network that takes seconds. This process is now extending to popular culture. Instead of waiting a week for Time magazine to appear in print, you can now browse through its pages on a daily basis. The gains for Australians who face a lag of weeks or months in getting access to most publications from Europe or North America, are even greater.
More fundamentally, text, unlike video, is an inherently nonlinear medium. A book or a newspaper can be skimmed or browsed, read in many different orders. But the nonlinearity of text has been constrained by the limitations of print. The academic article, with its array of footnotes, cross-references and citations is an elaborate attempt to surmount these problems. The World Wide Web and other innovations offer the potential of ‘hypertext’ (the term is due to computer visionary Ted Nelson, and the basic technology of the Web is called Hypertext Markup Language). While reading a page on, say, Nelson Mandela, you can jump to a description of the main tribal groupings in South Africa or on cultural changes in the townships. Then, if you are sufficiently disciplined you can return to the original page. Alternatively, you can wander off into pages on world music or anthropology (with sound and maybe video clips, but still organised around text).
Nothing like this is feasible with video. A string of loosely connected video clips makes, at best, a music video or an art film and, at worst, a mess. Admittedly, the best multimedia artworks can give the viewer a feeling of free movement while maintaining some degree of coherence. But the effort involved in constructing such works is immense, and the freedom of movement is illusory compared to that of hypertext.
Will all of this be for boys only, as Dale Spender fears ? I doubt it. The male orientation of computer culture, particularly at school level, reflects partly male values of mastery over complex technology and partly the computer-as-video-game syndrome.
But the need for technical prowess in using a computer has virtually disappeared. Since the advent of the Macintosh, and its more popular imitation, Windows, we no longer see the articles (mostly by women) on the theme ‘I bought this PC but I can’t make it work’ that abounded in newspapers and magazines a few years ago. The Internet, long the playground of arcane Unix wizards, has taken a little longer to open up, but the World Wide Web is now accessible to all.
Boys will undoubtedly continue to dominate the computer game scene. But skill at blasting aliens in Doom does not translate into much of value in the wider world. Indeed, the lack of fit between the male culture typified by video games and an increasingly text-based and information-based society is part of the reason why boys are doing so much worse than girls at school. When it comes to actually using computers to do something useful, the male advantage is eroding fast.