Fact-checking the information exa-ggeration

Numbers: they can be beguiling things, especially when they tell a story we really want to hear.

The bigger the numbers the better, ideally so mind-bogglingly big that they totally overwhelm our critical faculties.

Best of all, take a series of numbers getting ever bigger: a dynamic that makes us feel as if something significant is happening before our eyes.

All of the above feature in this example from Google’s recent annual shareholders meeting:

[Chief executive officer Eric] Schmidt estimates… There are 800 exabytes of information in the world people can access on the Internet, he says, explaining that an exabyte is about 1 billion gigabytes. “Between the dawn of civilization and 2003, there were exactly five exabytes created,” he says. “We now create that every two days.”

You’ll find the precise quote about 24 seconds into this video from Google’s Investor Relations channel.

The statistic prompted this reverie from the inestimable JP Rangaswami on his blog, Confused of Calcutta:

So, while I knew that the amount of information being produced was accelerating, and that too at an increasing rate, I didn’t really have an appreciation of the scale. Now I do, and I’m grateful to Eric Schmidt for that.

Now I’m sure there are many things for which we should be grateful to Eric Schmidt, but perpetuating this five exabyte claim is not one of them. I’ve tracked down the source and it’s not very convincing. This from Language Log, back in 2003:

The canard that “Five exabytes… is equivalent to all words ever spoken by humans since the dawn of time” was repeated in this 11/12/2003 NYT article by Verlyn Klinkenborg. It’s amazing how people pass this stuff around without checking it or thinking it through: Eskimo snow words all over again, though on a much smaller scale (so far).

For leaving aside the practical question of when we date “the dawn of civilisation,” what value judgements are implied in converting the “information” of a pre-digital world into bits and bytes?

How, for instance, do you evaluate a medieval manuscript? Its transcription into ASCII or Unicode may be a fraction of one laughing baby video but I’m not sure the comparison is very meaningful.

And what of all the other artefacts created by our ancestors? The warp and weft of their handmade clothes made unique pixellated patterns, while our machine-produced chainstore garments would be easily de-duped prior to archiving.

It’s really exciting to live in the 21st Century but breathtakingly arrogant to portray our predecessors as information poor. It feeds a narrative of technological determinism and “information overload” while blinding us to a much more enticing prospect: that people have been creating stuff since, erm, the dawn of civilisation.

As I suggested in a previous post, if we want to profit from the massive potential of new media, we’d do well to start with a little more humility and respect for the way people communicated and interacted quite happily for thousands of years without the help of mobile phones and computers.

Normob: is this the ugliest word not yet to enter the English language?

The words we use to talk about people quickly come to constrain the ways we relate to them, so it’s with mounting alarm that I see the spread of the word “normob” – a contraction of “normal mobile user”.

It started here, and has spawned this and this, and has even been taken up here. But before you’re tempted to drop this particular neologism into your zeitgeisty telecoms discourse, just stop for a moment and listen to yourself. This must surely be one of the ugliest words not yet to enter our language. I am not alone in my unease.

Let’s begin with the sound it makes, from the drawn out drone of the “nor” to the lumpen ending “ob” and with little to improve matters in between. Just to hear this word is an aural assault, like travelling on a defective Tube train.

Then there are the connotations packed into those innocuous-looking six letters. Here they are annotated, with apologies to users of screen readers [what must it be like to hear "norrr-mob" read out by a computer?] and anyone called Norman…

normob annotated

Continue reading

Twitter: where monologues collide

[Mr. Incredible throws a log at Syndrome, who dodges it and traps Mr. Incredible with his zero-point energy ray]
Syndrome: Oh, ho ho! You sly dog! You got me monologuing! I can’t believe it…

Late last year BBC4 aired an excellent Charlie Brooker Screenwipe special in which Graham Linehan, Russell T Davies and others shared their secrets of writing for the small screen. Frustratingly, at the time of this post it’s not available for viewing on iPlayer, but a write-up by Neil Baker confirms my recollection of one particular gem of an idea from Davies:

He basically said that dialogue is when two monologues collide. In a conversation, you’re not really listening, you’re waiting to speak. Everyone wants to tell their story.

The other day a colleague Twittered a question about how people use Twitter, and it struck me that Russell T Davies’ description of dialogue is exactly right. In answer to the ultimate invitation to self-centredness, “what are you doing?” we spin our own narritive threads. The @ signs and # tags are the places where those threads tangle together, where monologues collide to make dialogue.

Maybe it’s this merging of monologue and dialogue in one service that makes microblogging (or whatever you call it) so powerful a communications tool? One for those of us who, most of the time, are not very good at listening?

Tolerance and curiosity

From Barack Obama’s inaugural address:

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.”


“Tolerance and curiosity” may be the least expected of those true, old juxtopositions, but it seems the one most perfectly suited for our time. As David Ogilvy put it:

Diversity turns out to be the mother of invention (not necessity, as the mechanists thought).”

On BRICs and broken boxes


Adam Greenfield takes issue with the recently coined abbreviation BRIC, which arbitrarily lumps together the peoples of Brazil, Russia, India and China into a single multi-billion-sized unit.

Terms like this are:

antimatter to clarity of insight, or more accurately, some malignant linguistic equivalent of ice-nine: to drop one of them into a sentence is not merely to cast doubt on the acuity of one’s own mental processes, it’s to poison the entire discussion that follows and therefore includes the term by reference.

… which, I think, is beautifully put. Unlike Adam, I can’t resist the temptation to invoke Orwell’s Politics and the English language on occasion.

“Out of the box” used to get me too, but I’m now fully innoculated thanks to the last paragraph of a 2002 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell. Discussing Enron he concluded:

They were there looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box. It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.

Can’t help smiling every time I hear the phrase.


Thus somebody – and nobody quite seems to know whom – said of Johannes Gutenberg. But even with the belated arrival of the “w” to make up the Latin alphabet to 26, this once mighty army now seems barely enough to log into Bebo.

Cyrillic? on FLickr, by fil himself

There are forces at work.

  1. Web-based services demand that users have globally unique ids. You know the score – you enter your favoured username on the Web Too Point Oh site du jour only to find that some random namesake got there first.
  2. … but people’s names are not globally unique. I guess I could change my name by deed poll to mattedgar63 but society seems unsympathetic to such innovation.
  3. Fortunately many of the new breed of global web services support Unicode as standard. To force the majority of the World’s population to use only Latin characters would be bad for business, as well as deeply un-PC.
  4. Kids like codes. No sooner could my son write than he was finding ways to write messages in secret. Language can be used as a tool to obfuscate as well as communicate.
  5. Kids (in UK at least) are increasingly exposed to cultures with non-Latin character sets. The Iron Curtain has gone and with it the cosy certainty of Gutenberg’s lead soldiers…

Flickr - Cyrillic in the heart of London - by Happy Dave

And before you know it, it’s come to this. And this. And this…

Bebo Sayings

25 soldiers? Make that 95,221.

Only the afterthought remains

In the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Whitby, we came across this unexpected result of the interplay between people and the elements.

I love the idea that for some reason, after this tombstone was carved, they needed to change it. Maybe

  • extra family members were added
  • the original words wore away and had to be restored
  • the stonemason made a mistake

So an extra piece of matching stone was neatly added into the original surface. I like to imagine that the craftsman was proud of this patch-up. “No one will ever see the join,” he (I’m fairly certain it was a he) might have thought.

Then the weather took its toll – it’s pretty exposed at the top of the 199 steps to the Abbey site overlooking the sea. The words wore away, becoming harder to read until it was impossible to make out the names or details of the deceased.

Except for one word, the humble conjunctive adverb, because its little piece of stone was a little newer or harder than the original. “I’m not finished yet,” it says.


Sous les pavés, la plage

The payphone has bluescreened…

Payphone, London King's Cross

… the departure board has 404ed…

Departure board at Edgware Road Tube Station

… the giant TV screen is somebody’s Windows desktop…

Big screen, Millennium Square, Leeds

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Since posting my three broken technology pictures, I’ve been suffering the blogger’s equivalent of what the French call “l’esprit de l’escalier,” and for which German has the deeply satisfying word “Treppenwitz”.

If I’d paused just a little longer before hitting the publish button, I’d have added a discussion of the optimistic message contained in every one of those man-behind-the-curtain snapshots.

I’d have waxed lyrical on how in every case the authorities’ intentions to constrain processing power to a single task – the kiosk, the departure board, the TV screen – were subverted by its very malfunctioning, revealing the endless possibilities implicit in this most malleable and interconnected technology.

If only I’d waited a while, I’d have told the story of how my seven-year-old son, on seeing an unattended till terminal in Ikea, grabs the mouse and tries to log on to Adventure Quest.

I’d have invoked the situationist May 68 slogansous les pavés, la plage” – “beneath the paving stones, the beach” – which speaks of the unconstrained liberty that lurks just below the locked-down surface of our civilisation.

And I’d have ended in an overblown flourish and a bold font: beneath the pixels, the silicon!

Probably just as well I didn’t.

By Their Words You Shall Know Them

Recently I’ve been spending time around online advertising people and I’m starting to wonder: if they’re so smart at communicating, do they ever listen to themselves? For some reason this industry has adopted the most aggressive and unattractive jargon – targeting, eyeballs, cut-through, impressions, and so on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The parallel world of CRM does roughly the same thing but in much softer terms. CRM talks of customers, engagement, response, a lifetime. Yes, the CRM guys may be after only one thing (see Clue #80), but at least they have the decency to tell us they want a relationship.

Why does this matter?

  1. because the words we use about people behind their backs shape the way we act towards their faces
  2. because they might be listening.

Update 20/04/2008: Similar sentiments expressed by Russell Buckley on Mobhappy: The Language of Advertising

Update 05/11/2010: John Dodds has targeting in his sights

honest, tasty and real

Picture 033

Originally uploaded by mattedgar.

We believe that life is too short to find our own voice, and that it’s easier to copy someone else.
We take some dippy hippy Ben and Jerry’s blurb and add a dash of Dave Cameron Innocent Smoothy mateyness, then we mix it up a bit (but not much). We run the results by a focus group, and the ones that score the best we stick on the box.