Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Filter Failure

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve got news for you about information overload.

It’s not new.

When Johannes Gutenberg assembled his printing press (around the year 1440), he joined a the idea of a screw press with the idea of movable type. Instead of having to carve a whole page—backwards, incidentally, so that the printed page would print forward—printers could now carve individual letters, still backwards, but carving an “A” is a lot easier than carving, say, the Book of Genesis, page by page. Plus that “A” could be used repeatedly until it either broke or got so ragged around the edges that it no longer looked like an “A.”

Clay Shirky, a New York University new-media professor, writer, and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, contends that information overload started when the printing press had produced more books than a single literate person could read in a lifetime.

Given the average capabilities of the screw press (3,600 pages per day) and the reading speed of the average literate person, I suspect information overload was well established by 1550. It’s been with us ever since.

What information overload meant then, and still does, is that choices had to be made about what to read, and what to allow to pass by unread.

Presses were expensive, so was paper, ink, and the time of the person who carved all those “A”s not to mention “a”s, the other letters of the alphabet (capital and lower case), numbers, punctuation marks, and dingbats—those ornamental little flourishes printers used to decorate a page.

Since a printer wanted to recoup what he’d spent, he became the arbitrator of availability. Think of availability as a river. The publisher, the source of the river, not only controlled how much water went into the river, but he created filters to test and treat that water—admittedly according to his own standards of what the water quality should be—before it was released to float downstream to the reader.

Fast forward 460 years.

The river has turned into a swamp. Anyone can dump anything into the stream. Not that that is all bad. Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that brings us Wikipedia and other Wikis, had some positive things to say recently about what is being dumped into our information stream. That program, incidentally, is usually on-line for only about four months from the date of its original broadcast, so if you want to have a listen, don’t put it off.

But having an swamp instead of a river means that the filter has moved downstream to the individual user. Each one of us now has a personal responsibility to decide what we will read, how often we will read it, and what value we place on the reliability and validity of what is offered.

Clay Shirky, the guy I mentioned a few paragraphs back has coined the term “filter failure,” which he says means that it’s not the information that’s overloading us, it’s our inability to form good filters and use them. Here’s a link to the talk Shirky gave about filter failure at Web 2.0 in New York in 2009 December.

I think I was especially receptive this past week to both Sue Gardner’s and Clay Shirky’s pieces because, even though I hadn’t previously known the term filter failure, its essence has been on my mind. I've been asking myself questions like, how do I make choices about the stuff that is on-line? What criteria should I use when deciding what to read and what to skip? How do I filter in the good stuff—good, of course being highly personal, so how do I filter in good to me stuff is a more reasonable question? If I think the Internet is a living, dynamic system—and I do think that—how do I keep my personal river from turning into a swamp?

If I come up with anything, I'll let you know.

P.S. For any of you out there who are wondering how my play-writing course is coming, I just finished writing my first one-act play. Apparently ordinary mortals can get characters on stage, give them dialog to say, and get them off the stage 22 minutes later.

Quote for the week

No matter where we are on the [time] chart, the past always looks like a walk in the park and the future always looks like a cliff face.
~Clay Shirky


Julia Buckley said...

Great post! So what will you do with your play now that it's written?

Sandra Parshall said...

Information overload... I've got it. And all the evidence suggests that I do not have a working filter. I believe the internet is addictive, with all its attractions -- news from all over the world, updated constantly! funny cat pictures! panda cams! full texts of books! videos! entire TV episodes! chat, chat, chat on every conceivable subject! How on earth is a mere mortal to resist? But I must, or else I'll have no time to create my own information to add to someone else's overload...