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Brave New World – The Journalistic Function

October 11, 2011

Yesterday I was surfing Amazon looking for latest thinking and theories on such diverse tekkie subjects as membrane theory, quantum decoherence, and interstellar travel. In my enthusiasm, I bought a Kindle eBook which looked very promising from the blurb, only to find when I fired it up and started reading it that it was a load of well-meaning but amateurish hogwash, and certainly nothing I could use as the scientific underpinning of some writing I’m working on. Curious (and somewhat embarrassed by throwing away money unnecessarily) I surfed Amazon further, and found a strange phenomenon I’d never really been aware of before: lots and lots of books with stupendously long and superficially very impressive titles, like “Transhumanism, Augmentation, Artificial Intelligence, Computerized Brains, Future Evolution of Human Beings”. Hardly catchy – but certainly up my street!

Then I looked further. In the blurb was the explanation: these books are compilations of articles from wikipedia.

What?!? I reeled for a moment. What?! Wow… I searched for words. What a… waste of money… what a – huge loss in reliability, trust, of the printed word. Allegedly scientific books – just compilations of unconfirmed wikipedia pages?

It’s become a truism in the second decade of the 21st century that the internet is filled with information, and most of it is rubbish. Now, with the advent of cheap and easy ebooks, which can be compiled almost by web-bot and published without the additional expense of layout, proofing, and printing, the electronic and online libraries and bookshops of the world are running the risk of becoming indundated with undifferentiated, unverified, bogus crap. All my life I’ve been used to going into a bookshop, online or not, and being secure in the knowledge that the selection I was seeing had been subject to at least a modicum of quality control.

No longer. Was it like this when the printing press was invented? When suddenly books, pamphlets, and newspapers could be easily and cheaply produced which were then dumped on an unsuspecting (and hence perhaps gullible) public?

To some extent it must have been. There must have been – indeed, there were – heaps of publications containing bogus (and often dangerous) health and ailment remedies, false histories, calumnies, and out-and-out superstition dressed up as science. How did we manage?

Of course, we managed because a class of “trusted aggregators” came into being – educated filterers of information, with integrity not to publish any old crap. People you could trust to do the job of filtering out the garbage for you. Call them publishers, editors, journalists, whatever, since that time they’ve fulfilled a very simple gatekeeper function: to make sure that any random tomnoddy with a mad idea can’t suddenly claim it to be true and hoodwink an unsuspecting public.

The internet today is in dire need of aggregators. Over the past 10 years or so I’ve relied heavily on Amazon reviewers to vet the usefulness of publications, but web-savvy indies are wise to that, and now frontload their stuff with heaps of positive reviews – the bogus book I bought had 8 out of 10 thoroughly encouraging reviews. We need something more.

When I buy an iPad app, I go to one of a number of application aggregator sites for a review first. If it ain’t there, I’m unlikely to buy it. My gut feeling is that there is a huge niche – nay, a gulf – opening up in the internet right now for precisely that kind of *journalistic function* to sift through the piles of dross for the gems, and compile them and offer them for sale. In a world of free information, that’s your “value-add” – the ability for someone, say, who’s an expert in astrophysics to sift through the net and provide regular digests of the best that’s out there. It would be a massive time-saving for those of us who don’t have the wherewithal or knowledge level to do it ourselves (hey, I *love* pop astrophysics, but I simply *can’t* differentiate between cutting edge theories and well-disguised bollocks at the top level). I’d happily pay for that journalistic function.

So – IMHO that’s what I think we’ll see emerging right now and in the immediate future on the net. Paid aggregators – a new generation of journalists, specialists in their fields, building reputations for integrity and trustworthiness, selling digests and summaries of the amazing knowledge floating out there in the World Wide Brain, often swamped by the collective mutterings of humankind.

Now – I just need to find one who can tell me about hyperspace… 😉

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Gerall Kahla permalink
    October 12, 2011 4:54 pm

    Your experience is spooky. I find myself suddenly looking over the library of pop-sci and maths books on my Kindle for similar “issues of provenance”… Or should that be lack of vetting for quality? What would you call material that’s not as yet inspected?

    Have you read the novel _Rainbow’s End_ by Vernor Vinge?

    Kids in school are facing new subjects; primarily subjects involving aggregation and becoming a source of added value for the torrent of media on the Internet.

    Plus the plot involves other high-Transhumanist ideas like an Alzheimer’s patient being cured, regenerated, and his problems with re-entering a society alien to him. Oh, and the very real threat of memetic warfare!

    • October 13, 2011 10:34 am

      Sounds like I definitely need to have a look at Rainbow’s End!

      I think the whole concept of a “slush pile” on unvetted manuscripts landing up on Amazon’s front page is ghastly, but hopefully just a temporary aberration. The democratization of publishing is totally awesome, as it should be, and is leading to a cultural explosion which the Powers That Be (especially the commercial ones and their political stooges) would dearly like to check. But at the same time we need some serious Gatekeepers.

      Of course, the question then is, “Who gatekeeps the gatekeepers?” 😉

      • Gerall Kahla permalink
        October 14, 2011 8:18 pm

        Like most modern pursuits, it’ll probably come down to each subculture developing its own memetic criteria for fitness. Those authors and “editors” whose work meets these criteria will achieve mindshare, and their memes will then have the resources to reproduce. Perhaps even mutate and spawn thier own subcultures!

        Hard Science is only one such subculture, though. The democratization of the publishing world only provides the environment. That sounds familiar, though; cultures with different values and memes competeing for mindshare among the limited resources of this Entropy-yoked universe we find ourselves in.

        Mindjammer pre-singularity, if you will.

        Thanks for the thoughtful commentary, and try to stay out of trouble!

        -pax-

  2. Jaime permalink
    October 11, 2011 9:46 pm

    The beauty of fiction is that you get to use your imagination to define thing as you see fit absolute facts are not necessary or even desired in my opinion. Of course ,you are a very creative person so I’m not saying anything new to you. I do have to agree that there is alot of nosence info out there!I’m not a writer but am an artist(draing ect)I do love to read.Good luck finding that info you are looking for.Wish I could have helped in some way.
    By the way I wanted to say thanks again for running games at gen con I had a blast in your games.
    Jaime

    • October 13, 2011 10:41 am

      Hi Jaime!

      It was great to meet you at GenCon – thanks for joining the games, I had an absolute blast too!

      I think you’re right about absolute facts not being strictly necessary – we’re trying to write “speculative fiction” after all – but at the same time IMHO it’s vital to preserve that “illusion of reality” and (especially in science-fiction) not right stuff which is downright counter to common sense or which current scientific understanding can’t even at least grudgingly accept as possible. For a non-science specialist that’s especially challenging, but the ideas available to speculative fiction these days are simply too attractive to pass by!

      Obviously a lot of speculative fiction drifts gradually from science-fiction to a kind of magical realism, which is of course great – but even then I internal logic is still paramount. Once a reader can’t predict or understand events based on the internal logic of a story, then you’re done for.

      Great to hear you’re an artist – I suspected something like that when we met! What sort of thing do you do? Do you find you need a lot of research?

      Best,

      Sarah 🙂

      ps: I’m a linguist by training and kind of instinctively see meanings and etymologies in people’s names. I love how your name means “I love” over here in France! 😀

      • Jaime permalink
        October 13, 2011 11:11 pm

        Hi again!
        I did caricatures in Las Vegas for 8 years ,now I cut hair @ a Great Clips.I do lots of comic style drawings for my pleasure and dabble in acrylic paints. I also like to mess around with photoshop and use POSER ,a 3d program for models, and photos for drawing references.
        I have French ancestry.My last name Du Sablon,unfortunatly I do not speak a like of French but i do speack Spanish,the other part of my ancestry and thus my name Jaime-(Hi meh) I was aware of the French “I love” It has been told to me long ago by someone trying to be cleaver and pick up on me..LOL.
        I appreciate you taking the time to respomd to my comment!!!
        Jaime=)

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