July 11th, 2007

Drinking from the fire hose


palatinate said:
'm not sure whether I should be worried. I freely admit that I'm not heavily into the blogosphere (despite having an LJ) but I'm fascinated by the way in which the extremes of the spectrum - from being "plugged in" to trends to being totally disconnected - are pulling further and further apart over the last couple of years. (Web 2.0 arrives ...).

I'm getting a little bit of that sense of dislocation / change of scale that one gets in Doc Smith or watching the "Powers of 10" film. Or the old adage where "to the higher intelligence / aliens / etc, we are just like ants".

At work (in an advanced IT function with very smart people who by most "average human" standards are very technically literate) I was last week explaining the competition between LJ/MySpace/Facebook etc, and the way in which people complement these with e.g. Deli.cio.us and Flickr. And they were all going "wow" at my knowledge. And then I look at the top 20 sites on Technorati and I haven't even heard of half of them....

In the old days of Web 1.0, there were a certain number of highly popular sites and everyone knew what they were. These days the diversity of interaction paradigms and ways of viewing the world is stretching things so fast that it's really starting to create the "haves" and "have nots" of being connected ... and the effort to stay a "have" is getting more and more. I guess one question I wonder about though is, does it matter? Most of the world (even the educated, literate, tech friendly, Internet knowledgeable world) still manages without being aware of all this stuff. Is it really important, or is it still just the tail of the distribution, which only matters to those people who are really into it?

[To be clear, I'm not talking about the general Web 2.0 trend; it's clear that social networking, multi-user games & environments, etc are having a big impact in a fundamental way; but does it really matter if I don't know who's who in Technorati? Not so sure ...

And I replied:
On the one hand, we're getting more and more swamped. I remember back to the eighties, which was approximately when it was possible for an almost-normal dedicated reader to keep up with print sf. The great stuff, the good stuff, *and* the mediocre stuff, with a little time left over for reading golden age sf. There may be a few reviewers and anthologists who still manage it.

We didn't need a canon.

By the nineties, I kept meeting sf fans who hadn't heard of Bujold, even though she was publishing something like a novel a year and getting major awards. I don't think prejudice against women had anything to do with it. The lousy book covers she was getting might have mattered, but there is still no way an author with her record could have failed to be generally well known twenty years earlier.

We may be coming up on an era where canons are impossible. I believe they're a middle period phenomenon, when there's too much for any one person to keep track of but there's little enough that a culture can agree on what's important.

Part of what's happened is not just that there's more stuff in every medium, but that more mediums are respectable.

Our access to art is deeper and wider--it used to be that if you didn't see a tv show when the station was playing it, you missed it unless there happened to be reruns. And you weren't getting movies from Japan and India, either.

And computers make it easier to modify existing art, so a book you like might have more added in future editions (changes between editions have always happened, but I'd swear it's more common now) and there are variations and backstories added to visual art.

On the other hand, there was always a lot of good stuff tucked away here and there that never made it into the public venues. Some of it was in letters and little magazines. There may well be more good stuff being created now--partly because there's more access to audiences, but we're also getting a better idea of how unmanageably much there is. There were always a lot of good conversations you weren't part of, and now some of them are online.

At this point, popular culture is getting more cross-referential. There are little jokes that only make sense if you know what you know what other parts actors have played. I don't know if this is stable. It only works if there's a shared background, and I think those backgrounds are going to fragment.

I figured out a while ago that there was no way I could ever keep up with what I wanted to read. Any intelligence augmentation which made it possible for me to read faster would also make it possible for authors to write faster.

At this point, it's not just that I don't have the time to read everything I'd love. (I'm not as crazy about visual media or music--if I were, I'd be even more swamped.) It's that there are certainly things I'd love that I'll never even hear about. Well, almost certainly--I won't swear that AI or near-AI search engines might solve part of the problem.

I realize that there's also more and more bad stuff these days, but the gatekeeper systems are capable enough that you don't have to spend much time on it.

So, does it matter if you can no longer know who's who on Technorati? I'm not sure, but I recognize that the world is different if you can't. My feeling is that a world with an overabundance of good stuff is at least a wonderful problem.

And then I reread palatinate's post, and I realize I've missed most of his point. I suppose my best answer is that everyone is going to be living more and more in different infospheres.

Note: my post has been expanded from the version over at autopope.

Graduates with heavy debt less likely to contribute to their universities


A survey of more than 300 young graduates that was released last month found that those who left school with no loans were twice as likely to donate to their alma mater. And those with loans below $20,000 were much more likely to give than those with higher debt, according to the study by two sociologists that was commissioned by American Student Assistance, a Boston-based nonprofit involved in the loan industry.

Link thanks to xiphias.