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.

A funny thing happened to my copy of a limited-edition newspaper

This is not just any newspaper.

It is a signed, numbered (23/100), limited-edition copy of “Immanent in the Manifold City“, crafted by James Bridle with the generous assistance of Newspaper Club, Graphics category winner in the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year Awards.

I left it on the sofa while I went out to work.

When I came home I discovered that someone had used it like, well, any newspaper. For scribbling on.

Now I understand why tabloid sub-editors abhor white space.

As It Is To-Day

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. And so I’m loving the safari around the world’s largest city and capital of the British Empire, afforded by Chris Heathcote’s inventive Newspaper Club debut As It Is To-Day.

Chris has been feeding Newspaper Club’s editing software Arthr on a diet of old London press cuttings from the 18th Century to the 20th. The result is a delightful gallimaufry (my all time top new word of the week): here the city is described at the height of its pre-eminence in 1851, there is a reflection on the sad fate of Cleopatra’s Needle by the 1920s.

My own favourite dish gives a taste of the hazards of the 1790s “On Walking London Streets,” a 14-point list of instructions for avoiding pick-pockets, horse-drawn traffic and falling slops. I love the idea that the characters of my 1794 stories were moving through a million-person city for the first time. Was this their missing manual?

Also, an umbrella was considered “a machine”. So too, in the right hands, is a newspaper. You can buy it here.

1794 Redux

Late last year I made a small prototype based on my Ignite London talk, 1794, by printing the 20 slides as Moo cards, with associated pages on this blog.

Now there’s a new version, using cards, stickers and an A3 sheet for you to play with the story. It’s backed up with a new set of web pages at 1794story.wordpress.com.

It’s an unashamedly personal, partial and unfinished history, an experiment in stripping the book down to its barest essentials then adding some of the flexibility and remixability of the web. I’ve written more of the “why” of the project in the about page.

Also, I’m looking for a few people to play with the story. “Beta test” would be an overstatement, but I am interested in honest feedback. There is no right way to read this story, only what you do with it. Let me know if you’re interested.

On newsprint: the potency of cheap paper

This post was going to be all about newspapers, but the more I thought about it the more I realised that before writing about the news I have to explain the paper, specifically the cheap, low quality paper we call newsprint.

It’s a fascinating story which, I think, explains why short-run, nichepaper projects such as Newspaper Club are so deliciously disruptive.

After all there have always been easier formats for getting messages out to people. For decades there was the mimeograph, then the photocopier, and desktop publishing, books, leaflets, A4 newsletters and “vanity-published” books. Rarely did the newspaper form get a look-in on anything other than, well, news.

To understand why that is, we should consider the trade-offs. This involves a graph, with no numbers, but stay with me, please.

Continue reading “On newsprint: the potency of cheap paper”

Ten years on, can we stop worrying now?

Ten years ago this month the Sunday Times published an article by Douglas Adams called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet”. You can read it here.

Some starting observations:

  1. It’s a tragedy that Adams died, aged 49, in 2001, depriving us of more great literature in the vein of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, of genuinely innovative new media projects such as H2G2, and of the witty, insightful commentary we find in the Sunday Times column.
  2. Adams’ insights have stood the test of time.  Everything he wrote at the end of the Nineties stands true as we near the start of the Tens.
  3. We still haven’t stopped worrying.

Adams from 1999:

… there’s the peculiar way in which certain BBC presenters and journalists (yes, Humphrys Snr., I’m looking at you) pronounce internet addresses. It goes ‘wwwDOT … bbc DOT… co DOT… uk SLASH… today SLASH…’ etc., and carries the implication that they have no idea what any of this new-fangled stuff is about, but that you lot out there will probably know what it means.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on…

2009: John Humphrys is still huffing and puffing [Update 3/9/09 – further proof provided!], and…

you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

The moral panic continues, now transferred to social networking and camera phones.

And Douglas Adams hit the nail of the head in his taking to task of the term “interactive”:

the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

The same fallacy persists, now transferred from the term “interactive” to “social“.

Ten years ago, Douglas Adams identifed a few problems.

  • “Only a minute proportion of the world’s population is so far connected” – this one’s well on the way to being fixed, as much by the spread of internet-capable mobile devices as by desktop or laptop PCs.
  • It was still “technology,” defined as “‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs.” – has the internet in 2009 reached the same level of  everyday acceptance as chairs? Almost, I think, though the legs still fall off with disappointing regularity.

The biggest problem, wrote Adams, is that “we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it”. Invoking Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct (read this too, if you haven’t already), he argued that it would take the next generation of children born into the world of the web to become really fluent. And for me that’s been the most amazing part. Reflecting the other day on Tom Armitage’s augmented reality post to the Schulze and Webb blog, I realised that I see that development in my own children’s engagement with technology.

  • At birth a child may assume that anything is possible: a handheld projector holds no special amazement for my three-year-old.
  • Through childhood we are trained, with toys among other things, to limit our expectations about how objects should behave. My six-year-old, who has been trained by the Wii, waves other remote controls about in a vain attempt to use gestures.
  • My nine-year-old, more worldliwise, mocks him for it.

We arrive in the world Internet-enabled and AR-ready, it’s just that present-day technology beats it out of us. I work for the day when this is no longer the case.

Last words to Douglas Adams, as true today as in 1999:

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.

Update 3/9/09: Debate about Twitter on the Today programme, and Kevin Anderson takes up the theme.