I was invited to participate in a panel at the Google Zeitgeist event in the UK last month; it was a real privilege, it gave me the chance to listen to many good speakers, watch some fascinating demos and meet a whole bunch of people who challenged my thinking. Thank you Google, particularly Nikesh Arora, as well as the team led by Dan Cobley.
As with any conference where good things are said, I walked away with a litany of soundbites, some of which I tweeted live. But there was one that I did not tweet, one that I’ve had reason to continue to ponder, one that forms the kernel of this post. Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, had this to say (to be found at 19:48 in this video):
“…. the statistic that we have been using is between the dawn of civilisation and 2003, five exabytes of information were created. In the last two days, five exabytes of information have been created, and that rate is accelerating. And virtually all of that is what we call user-generated what-have-you. So this is a very, very big new phenomenon.”
It’s important to understand scale. As a child I had some real difficulty visualising the size of an atom. Until I read a book that said something like “if you take the carbon atoms contained in just one full stop on this printed page and laid them out end to end in a straight line, that line would extend from the earth to the sun and beyond”. 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.
What it made me do was think. Think about why there’d been a quantum shift in scale. And the answers that came to me were predictable and simple: the tools for creating information had really become democratised, and as a result the number of people empowered to “create information” had grown in multiple orders of magnitude. With no sign of Moore’s Law coming to a screeching halt for at least another 20 years, it is reasonable to suppose that the phenomenon will continue.
And continue it will. Because the changes don’t stop there. It’s not just the tools for creating information that have been democratised, the tools for distributing it have been democratised as well. As Kevin Kelly kept reminding us, the internet is a very efficient copy machine.
If that wasn’t enough, the tools for consuming information have also been democratised, initially by the PC, then by the mobile phone, then by broadband and wireless broadband, and now by the convergence of all of these, the smartphone and tablet.
Production, distribution and consumption of all forms of digital information: text, music, image, video: have all been democratised. So why should the curation of these be any different?
Digital curation seems to be a richer form of curation than its analog equivalent. Here’s what I think it consists of:
Let me try and explain a little further.
- Authenticity: Confirming the provenance of the item, that it was created by the person or persons claimed. That the person credited wrote the book or article. That the singer or band sang the song. That the actor or director made the movie. And so on and so forth. Traditional media sources were quite used to doing this, and should be able to continue to do this.
- Veracity: Confirming the “truth” of the item, in the sense of the “facts” represented. That the news item has been verified. That the photograph hasn’t been doctored. That the voice hasn’t been dubbed. You know what I mean. Again, something that traditional media are quite used to doing, something they should continue to do.
- Access: Andrew Savikas, in an article in O’Reilly TOC some time ago, mooted the idea of Content As A Service. My takeaway from it was simple. People do not pay for the “content” of a song or clip on iTunes as much as they pay for the convenience of getting to the item quickly and with a minimum of fuss. One could argue that traditional media had a role to make it simple and convenient for us to consume analog content, and that they will be able to adjust to the new world accordingly.
- Relevance: Now it gets a little more interesting, touching on interests and aspirations, on preferences and profiling. Something that the analog world was poor at, something that traditional media didn’t really take up in the digital world. Can be done in many ways, some involving technology, some involving humans. And some involving both. Ad-based relevance is becoming harder and harder to sustain; curation via social networks seems to work, and to work well.
- Consume-ability: This covers a whole shopping-trolley of concepts right now, and I’m going to have to work on it. I use it to mean device-agnostic availability of the digital content, so that I don’t have to use an iPod to listen to music from iTunes. I use it to mean ease of comprehension, whether through the use of visualisation tools like heatmaps or wordles or tag clouds or charts or whatever. I use it to mean tools to simplify (and sometimes even enrich) the content, via translation, via summarising, via hyperlinks, via mashups (especially those that add location or time contexts). I use it to mean the use of tools like Layar and Retroscope. [Incidentally, I plug these technologies completely unashamedly. Both Maarten and Chris are friends, but that's not why I blog about them. I blog about them because they're brilliant!]
- Produce-ability: We’ve only just begun to appreciate a return to the Maker culture, something that people like Tim O’Reilly, Dale Dougherty, Cory Doctorow, Larry Lessig et al have been yelling about for some time now. The industrial-revolution-meets-central-broadcast woolly mammoth of the last 150 years seems incapable of recognising the significance of the small mammals currently underfoot. So that model is destined to go the way of all mammoths. Soon we will look at things in terms of how easy they are to get under the hood of, how easy they are to adapt, mutate, mangle, make something completely new out of. Which is why the rules of engagement will change. Intellectual property rights will be recast. Yes, will. There is no longer a choice, just the illusion of time. It is over. Period.
Production, consumption and distribution of information have already been democratised. There’s no turning back. Curation will go that way. Which means that the very concept of the expert, the professional, the editor, the moderator of all that is great and good, changes.
And yes, we have to consider whether the internet makes us smart. Whether the internet makes us smarter.
The emphasis should be on us. Us.
[It's one a.m. now and I'm tuckered out. Time to publish and, if necessary, be damned. Let me know what you think. There's a lot more where this came from, but I want to know if you're interested before I share it.]