So last millennium (repost from 2004, linking article from 1995)

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[1]. 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.

13 thoughts on “So last millennium (repost from 2004, linking article from 1995)

  1. Seems plausible to me on a first reading, but what do I know, really? How does the development of vlogging affect your argument?

    What I liked most was the comparison of Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson. The link to a Camille Paglia article is dead, incidentally.

  2. This conclusion seems to be very naive. I taught boys for twenty-four years from 1987 to 2011. Many of them did better in IT based employment than the girls I taught at North Sydney Girls High. I also taught coed classes in state high schools. Males are adept at using computers to do things in a new way. If that is not the secret to the tech boom in the USA then it is certainly a critical success factor. Females might be better at school and at exams, I taught one girl who came first in the state of NSW for English, but males do better at innovation and technology. They still have a a significant advantage in math based university subjects. To say it is “eroding fast’ seems at best wishful thinking and at worse Utopian.

  3. Interesting you mention Jordan Peterson, as he is an example of the more recent move back away from text (which you also predict in passing).
    Jordan Peterson’s main ouvre is precisely “a string of loosely connected video clips” but (content aside) he makes it work, and possibly part of the attraction to young men Is his personal charm, which doesn’t translate to text.

  4. Listen while you run.

    JQ – “… inaccessible and often out-of-date reference volumes have been replaced by instant on-line access to databases”, yet the link is broken and I can’t find article.

    Interesting as you state also ” But the nonlinearity of text has been constrained by the limitations of print.”

    I’m visual yet prefer text! For concepts involving dynamics, counter intuition,  nonlinearity, I need verbal or textural intro, the model then interactivity and finally math or geometry.

    Huge interview by TylernCowan of  Paglia.
    ! – 56min read. +audio +video. An apt example of, as you say;
    ” A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in computer terms it takes up the same space as a hundred thousand.”

    And all this needs a climate tax due to the poor productivity of broken links, searches, 3 differing media types – and then ‘us’ commenters.

    “Camille Paglia on her Lifestyle of Observation, David Bowie, and Lamb Vindaloo (Ep. 9 — Live at Mason)

    Mercatus Center
    Apr 25, 2016 · 56 min read

    Camille Paglia joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on the brilliance of Bowie, lamb vindaloo, her lifestyle of observation, why writers need real jobs,Star Wars, Harold Bloom, Amelia Earhart, Edmund Spenser, Brazil, why she is most definitely not a cultural conservative, and much more.

    Listen to the full conversation

    You can also watch a video of the conversation here.

    Read the full transcript

    TYLER COWEN: Camille has written the very best essays ever on Edmund Spenser, Alice in Wonderland, and the Marquis de Sade. She understands Bob Dylan and Susan Sontag — .

    PAGLIA: [hisses]”…

    “PAGLIA: First of all, I think the way that my own party, the Democratic party, is using this rubric of equal pay for women as if this has not been a matter of law ever since the presidency of JFK, for heaven’s sake.

    There may be cases of outrageous disparity in pay for doing the same work. Now and then, they’ll find something like in a hospital, a woman doctor, a veteran doctor who’s not being paid the same level. But it’s rare when these actual cases do surface.

    There’s all this propaganda being pumped out about this issue, when in fact, women are not — if women are earning 72 cents or 75 cents on the dollar, it’s not for the same job. This is the lie that’s being told. Women doing the same job as a man are not being paid 75 cents for something that the man is being paid a dollar.”
    View at

    “Camille Paglia: The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil

    SEPTEMBER 29, 2014
    Paglia is the author of Free Women, Free Men

    …” Current educational codes, tracking liberal-Left, are perpetuating illusions about sex and gender. The basic Leftist premise, descending from Marxism, is that all problems in human life stem from an unjust society and that corrections and fine-tunings of that social mechanism will eventually bring utopia. Progressives have unquestioned faith in the perfectibility of mankind.”…

    And much irony.

    “With this daring statement, arts advocate Camille Paglia ignites another controversy in her latest book, Glittering Images. Her aggressively opinionated approach places George Lucas and Star Wars in the hair-trigger sights of a fine arts community that Paglia condemns for “living in the  past” while neglecting the present and future.”…

    Review of Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars
    Review by Mary Sheridan

  5. I frequently toggle “Reader View” on many sites to cancel the “pretty page” shit. I confess to being a “reader”. My era was the print media era edging into the TV era which I missed because we “broke” the TV until children were up to speed as readers. The internet is a wonderful tool for the old phart retired engineer who loves to disturb the universe.

  6. What do I know ? Very little, obviously, my own efforts at forecasting are best forgotten.
    But here’s my 2 bob’s worth (which shows how last century I am):

    (1) I am (still) trying to learn French. Text, by itself, is virtually useless. Video on youtube by professional French youtubers such as Cyprien, Natoo, Norman, Golden Moustache, Studio Bagel, not to mention Francais avec Pierre est fantastique et très éducatif!
    (2) I like music and dance; it doesn’t go well in text form. The videos available on the Internet now are amazingly entertaining and even make bad music seem good.
    (3) I find youtube videos telling me how to do things extremely useful, whether it is Home Handyperson Hints or How To Roll Your Sea Kayak. Check out Kyle & April telling you how to ride a mountain bike, for example “Better Corners in 1 Day” available on Youtube. Very professional advice and excellent video at zero price. You can’t learn anything useful about how to ride a bike by just reading.

    So JQ, you are correct that there is: the difficulty of producing good graphics; the memory space taken up by video; the time lag associated with downloading images; the cost of producing good video; and the linearity of video. All true … my download speed is never fast enough, my computer never has enough memory, my photos and videos are lousy, etcetera etcetera. (But wow, when I think back, I used to worry about baud rates, I used to worry about dropping my card deck, it took forever to debug my Fortran programmes, and I used to take 20 still B&W photos in a year (and maybe one good one) ! )

    but these things have become increasingly irrelevant. Here I am reading your blog, and writing back, but video is big, bold and beautiful too, and the youth doesn’t care.

  7. Nah!
    Link doesn’t work.
    Chirping crickets..I’ll switch off the lights. Cyanide pills, anyone?

  8. ..”The Deep-Sea Cables”, whispering “the world shall be one”. It needed the bit rate to go up by a factor of a billion, but that’s just a technical detail.

  9. I could have gone all year long without knowing that Camille Paglia was still out there spouting codswallop.

  10. Nothing will make the world of humans one: not trade, not communication, not anything. There are too many sources of competition intrinsic to the living condition, the animal condition, the human condition. Rather than oneness we need workable degrees of separation but of course not complete isolation.

  11. Link to the Kipling poem:
    IMHO it’s not really spoilt by the complete myth in the first line of wrecks dissolving mid-water, a popular theory at the time.

    Iko: how many times a day do you rely on Berners-Lee’s Hypertext Transfer Protocol and the web of cables and servers that provides it with a physical infrastructure? Does JQ know where the server that hosts john is physically located?

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