Critical literacy and churnalism

market 1

market 1 (Photo credit: tim caynes)

Anybody who’s interested in starting an online business could not but notice the interest in internet marketing – specifically through the so-called ‘social media’ (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and the like).  Yes, we all know that in cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream – but can they hear you market?  Interesting conundrum.

What I find amusing, in my wry and cynical way, is the huge emphasis on ‘content marketing’, and this is, I believe, of direct interest to information professionals.  Do a Google search for ‘content marketing’ and be prepared to be astonished – not so much by the number of hits you get, as the enormous range of differing opinions of what people think it is.  The most popular use of the term seems to suggest that it is little more than the fluff surrounding product promotion.  For example, if your product is dog shampoo, you will write anything at all about dogs, and keeping them clean and flea- and mud-free.  Never mind that the content is trivial, repetitive, and extremely badly written, as long as it scores on the Google hit charts and that people are directed to your site.  And buy your dog shampoo.

Now, as has been extensively discussed on this blog previously, ‘content’ – i.e. the stuff contained in a document such as a web page or book or film or vinyl record – is what I call ‘information’: the idea somebody has had, expressed and recorded in shared symbolic codes (language, writing, music, mathematics).  Extending this, it would appear that the newest trend in the digital world – in particular, the commercial part of it (and sometimes it’s hard to know what isn’t commercial) – is marketing ideas.

Yawn.  So what else is new?  Information professionals – and educators of all stripes – have been ‘marketing’ ideas for a long time.  Indeed, they do more than that: they select, arrange, organise, curate, store, protect and make available ideas, from any source.  Why? Not to sell ‘products’ as such, but to enable people to better understand their lives and the context in which they live: specifically, perhaps, to help them make better decisions by developing critical thinking skills and so sorting out the wheat from the chaff.  As previously mentioned, information professionals have a social responsibility and thus, it should follow, do not have ulterior motives.

‘Content marketing’ as it is practised seeks to achieve something quite different: manipulation.  From syndicated (and biased) news reports repeated endlessly no matter which newspaper you read (so it seems, anyway), to badly written ebooks written by people deficient in intelligence, erudition, maturity, insight and grammatical skills, to billions of blogs, probably written by the same people.  And they all repeat each other.  In fact, there is even software which will ‘rewrite’ the same thing in many different ways so that the same ‘content’ (I hesitate to call it ‘information’ because it may not even contain an idea) can be published many times.  You can also get – and for free, quite often – a collection of ready-written blog articles to suit whatever it is that you wish to publicise – home-schooling, gluten-free recipes, sportscars, adventure holidays – you name it, someone has supplied a load of bumpf for you to re-use.  I visited some freelance sites a while ago, and found that the majority of bidders for jobs requiring writing and editing skills for English content did not have English as their home language and/or couldn’t write their application without glaring grammatical errors.  No wonder so much stuff published on the internet is virtually unreadable.

So much for the ‘information explosion’.  Most comments on this issue focus on one of two phenomena: the huge increase in scientific and scholarly publications, or the easily accessible media now available – including, of course, the internet, as well as the traditional magazines, radio, television and newspapers.  While the vast amount of scholarly information now available does stretch the resources and imaginations of information professionals, the general public seldom has interest in or direct access to such information.  So many of us turn to Google, and are satisfied with whatever answer we find that seems vaguely relevant amongst the first 10 or so hits.  But the biggest ‘information’ explosion has come from every Joe Blow now thinking he knows something worth sharing.  Or even, knowing that they have nothing of interest to share, but sharing it anyway.  This disease appears to be contagious, gathering up common citizens, students, retirees, the unemployed, as well as people who should know better, such as journalists.  In the frenzy of making their digital mark, an awful lot is being badly said about nothing at all.  And this is what will, in all probability, appear in those first 10 hits.

This presents a real challenge to information professionals.  Critical thinking skills are seriously in decline, and many individuals seem to be unable to distinguish between ‘content’ that is being marketed, and reliable ‘information’. Citizens of the world, most of whom are able to vote, are being sucked into a vortex of ignorance and stupidity – in this, the ‘Information Age’.  If this continues, the meaning of ‘cultural memory institutions’ will evaporate, as their contents will simply not be understood, or worse, regarded as irrelevant to daily life.  All of those ideas which our forebears had, and recorded, that have shaped how we live today, will be invisible, as good as useless.

It’s not just ‘access’ that we should be concerned with – that”s easy enough, and becoming easier as information objects (‘documents’) are being digitised and networked.  And it’s  ‘reading’ either.  We shouldn’t be asking what people read.  We should try to understand  what our users understand and learn from what they read, and become teachers of critical literacy.

 

Comme des francais – orphans, cousins and nieces

FYI France: digital tortoise or digital hare?

Regarding the “orphans” — the legally and financially dispossessed, of the 20th c. and future digital worlds — the books / texts no one claims, or their cousins no one wants either, hidden in the vast library treasuries now being digitized by so many…

The French today, le 10 February 2011, announced their approach to these problems, see below — it is a brave declaration, well worth reading, as much for its “vive la différence” aspects as for what it both says and does not say.

Some comment:

* Approaches: “top=>down” very much versus “bottom=>up”

The above fairly characterizes a fundamental difference in approach, between the US and the Rest of the World Including France, in these and many other matters. And it is a difference best remembered on both sides, although often glossed-over, forgotten, or even never-known.  The French here are looking to their highest levels — their august national library, their publishers’ association, their national and supra-national governments — for leadership, in digitization. This is regulation-before-invention, rationality-before-impulse — “all is forbidden which is not permitted”, perhaps, as the oldest saying about all this goes…

The US approach could not be more different: “over here”, instead, two young Stanford graduate students, gangs of free-wheeling “venture capitalists” operating far outside the bounds of State-regulated “banking” — a virtual and real and very expensive maelstrom of inventive activity, conducted by a horde of mere kids (think of young Hewlett & Packard, Jobs & Wozniack, Brin & Page, Doerr fresh from college, Gates before he’d even finished, Zuckerburg ditto) all of them far too young at the time to have come up against any real “State regulation”, yet, more serious than a pot bust or a parking ticket, anyway, then many hectic deadlines and midnight sessions and much “labor rights” insecurity, “only the paranoid survive”, and tremendous excitement… There is no “business as usual”, in US hitech innovation: little of the “regulation” or “rationality” which the French so value, and absolutely _no_ “métro, boulot, dodo”.

China is different in all this, from the US, Japan is different, India is different although more like the US than some of the others are, perhaps. So thinking of France, a nation so like the US and yet so different, may help us to appreciate how _un_-like the US all the others really are, too — may enable us to take such differences less for-granted than we often do, in the hitech marvels currently pouring forth from the US and out upon the rest of the world, now.

* Marketing

If there is one characteristic of the US approach really not understood or even permitted, in most “foreign” places, it is “le marketing”. In US usage, the term describing and encouraging the private “corporations”, such as Google and Apple, which lead in these digitization efforts, is “marketing-led”: in a US firm, per the US “business” schools, marketing must be everything — if you can’t “sell” it you shouldn’t “do” it — it’s a way of characterizing the customer’s input, or the manipulation of same, in design and operations and all aspects of the firm, an outgrowth of the “customer is king” mantra of the older Horatio Alger commercial generation in the US.

But nothing could be more “foreign” to the French approach, here or generally. Digitization of their precious texts is motivated not by “marketing” but by various forms of altruism — history, philosophy, notions of the value of “reading” and the necessity of “education” — mention “marketing” and the folks in France involved in these matters literally will not know what you mean, as to them that is merely an instrumental, operational idea, more like “typing”, or “filing”, the idea that “marketing” could be central or a motivation or an end-in-itself, to the French is very foreign and the very strangest…

* Money

Unless it’s “monetize”… The French are no strangers to either term — Paris houses one of Europe’s best and biggest international business schools. But in France, as in most non-US places, it’s not “marketing” or “money” which drive book digitization efforts, for example, but “patrimoine culturel”.  Whereas in the US, “it’s the money”… The younger Venture Capitalist Generation’s mantra, this time, chanted repeatedly into the ear of the even-younger Graduate Student Corporate Founder, “Monetize! Monetize! Monetize!”…  To foreigners this preoccupation is a mystery, while in the US it is the essence: “The business of America is business”, as one US national president put it succinctly.

* Floods and Famines

Now then comes the problem, though: there must, it seems, be room for more than one approach.  Because things have Globalized, now: like it or not, for both us and the French, and the other Europeans, and the folks in India, and the teenager in Urumchi in China, doing research for her term paper & texting her friends & shopping at Victoria’s Secret, all via her cellphone… Also because there is a new flood of all this on its way, now…

The “information overload”, predicted from the “computers” of the 1980s and 1990s, was just “Flood 1.0” — an initial inundation, one coped-with, moderately well, by then-new tools such as “personal computers”, and by hypertext and information search & retrieval and The WorldWideWeb, and by Jerry’s List, then Yahoo, Google’s infamous algorithm, and decades of hitech development.  Now, though, from outside of the “computer” world and to a great extent unanticipated by it — “from Left Field”, to use the US baseball-analogy — comes the newly-Globally-omnipresent “mobile” telephony, and its possibilities for communicating via Internet.  The “power of many” just got graphic demonstration in the images from Cairo, repeating Teheran, and the Obama and Dean campaigns, and Manila’s “People Power”, and so many other recent instances.  The use of “mobiles”, in finding and retrieving and using and creating raw “data” — and then, hopefully, useful “information” too — is the information overload “Flood 2.0” just-now breaking.

However many “computer” users there are now or ever will be, Globally, there are far more “mobile” users now — and the two digital worlds, “computer” and “mobile”, now are merging, into user networks capable of producing virtual firestorms of data, and many unpredictable consequences.  As all of us who followed Cairo events on Twitter et al. over the last few weeks can attest…

Typical GoogleSearch retrievals of i.e. “3,439,000 results” are about to jump a thousand-fold, then — already we don’t really understand at all why “#1” floated to the top, of our particular retrievals-heap — Google says their algorithm knows, but that she’s just not telling — imminently, though, soon retrieving 1 out of “3,439,000,000+” instead, we’ll _never_ be able to find or evaluate or use anything, if we don’t start thinking outside of our old “computer”-era boxes pretty soon.

* Of Tortoises and Hares

Which brings us back to the French, here, and to their “different” approach — one which, I am suggesting, stands for similarly-“different” approaches to be found elsewhere, all over the newly-Globalizing world in fact…  Plenty of sterile debate takes place, in hitech, about who was “first” and who is “fastest”: sterile because most of it is circular — where knowledge is additive, identifying origins is an arbitrary matter of deciding where to draw the line — whether at a certain coffee shop in Silicon Valley, or at John von Neumann or Lady Lovelace, or at the invention of the “zero”.  But the French have held their own, in this history: for instance their Minitel offered “online graphics”, and “commercial applications”, and “general public access”, all long before the US Internet did — back when all these activities still were illegal on the Internet, in fact. Early French contributions did not end, or even begin, at Descartes…  And one of the first among non-anglophone nations to try at least to adopt the early and still-anglophone ASCII-only Internet was France: this despite the many battles — over “accents aigüs” and “OSI protocol wars” and “droit de copie” and the fascinating “droit moral”, through which M. Victor Hugo still “owns” a slice of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to the eternal mystification of Americans, and now over “Google the phenomenon” — the battles have been part of the process, educational for all sides.

So now, increasingly, comes governance: _who_ will “call the shots” and _how_, as the digital scales up to Globalized applications — to a Globe where governance generally is done mostly in a very non-US way, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Egypt as we recently have discovered, and really everywhere else, in places far more “different” from the US than France and the French ever have been?  The French have been “first”, in this, in many senses, and they very often have been very “fast” — they have been “en avance” of the US even in some hitech arenas, for example, in spite of there having been a “retard français” in others — always, however, they have offered usually-friendly although not-always-noticed clues, to us their US friends.  So in this “governance” instance, perhaps the French can help again. Their “top=>down” approach, and other aspects of the way they intend to do their book digitization — for “orphans” and “out-of-print” and other things — may be very different, from the way these ideas are thought of in Mountain View, or Manhattan, or Washington DC.  But they are more representative of the rest of the non-US world — and that is where the US wants to sell its own products and services, now, in a Globalized economy — marketing’s Golden Rule, “know thy customer…”  Worth-a-journey, then — the French, on caring for digitization’s “orphans”, below — definitely worth-a-study, at least.

–oOo–

[Original version in English — translation _not_ by JK — see

also the original version in French, below]

Paris, 1 February 2011 –

“Signature of the framework agreement for the digitization and

online exploitation of out of print French books of the 20th

century”

Frédéric Mitterrand, Ministry for Culture and Communication, René Ricol, Commissioner-General of investment attached to the Prime Minister, Bruno Racine, President of the National Library of France, Antoine Gallimard, President of the French Publishers Association (Syndicat national de l’Edition, SNE) Jean-Claude Bologne, President of the French Society of Literary Authors (Société des Gens de Lettres, SGDL) have signed a framework agreement reflecting the will to give new life, through digitization, to copyrighted out of print books of the 20th century. The aim is to digitize and make available for sale online, a corpus of 500 000 books within five years.

This agreement, fruit of the past year’s reflection and cooperation, enables the project to be taken one step further with the launching of a detailed feasibility study within the coming months. It stresses in particular the fact that digitized books through « Investments for the future » will be exploited by means of a common management guaranteeing publishers and authors, equally, a fair remuneration in line with intellectual property rights. As a result, copyrights law will be modified.

Digitization will rely on the legal deposit collections stored at the National Library of France. The latter will be entitled to possess a digital copy for its own use. The website Gallica  (http://gallica.bnf.fr/) will display the complete enriched bibliographical records, provide a possibility to access excerpts and redirect users towards online retailers in order to buy a digital copy.

The state financial support will be provided within the framework of the program « Development of the digital economy ». This euros 4.5bn scheme is one of the main components of the euros 35bn mobilized by the government for the « Investments for the future ». This includes euros 750m earmarked for the development of new ways of promoting and digitizing cultural, educational or scientific content.

[And the following is the original version in French — with a few ISO 8859-1 character set symbols added-in here, only, by JK.]

* Paris, le 1er février 2011

“Signature de l’accord cadre relatif à la numérisation et l’exploitation des livres indisponibles du XXème siècle” Frédéric Mitterrand, ministre de la Culture et de la Communication, René Ricol, commissaire général à l’investissement, Bruno Racine, président de la bibliothèque nationale de France, Antoine Gallimard, président du Syndicat national de l’Edition et Jean-Claude Bologne, président de la Société des gens de lettres, ont signé un accord-cadre traduisant la volonté de redonner une nouvelle vie, sous forme numérique, aux livres sous droits du XXème siècle n’étant actuellement plus commercialisés en librairie. Un corpus de 500 000 livres pourra ainsi être numérisé et proposé à la vente à l’horizon de 5 ans.

Fruit d’une année de réflexions et de concertations, cet accord-cadre permet d’aborder une nouvelle phase dans la mise en oeuvre de ce projet avec la réalisation d’une étude de

faisabilité détaillée dans les prochains mois. Il rappelle notamment que les livres numérisés au moyen des Investissements d’avenir seront exploités dans le cadre d’une gestion collective assurant aux éditeurs et aux auteurs, représentés à parité, une rémunération équitable dans le strict respect des droits moraux et patrimoniaux. Le code de la propriété intellectuelle sera modifié en conséquence.

La numérisation des livres sera effectuée à partir des collections du dépôt légal conservées à la Bibliothèque nationale de France. Celle-ci pourra conserver une copie numérique pour son usage propre. Le site Gallica (http://gallica.bnf.fr/) présentera l’intégralité des références bibliographiques enrichies, avec une possibilité de feuilletage, et renverra à des sites marchands pour l’acquisition des livres numériques. Le soutien financier de l’Etat s’inscrira dans le cadre du programme « développement de l’économie numérique ».

Ce programme doté de 4,5 milliards d’euros est l’une des principales composantes des 35 milliards d’euros que le gouvernement mobilise pour les « investissements d’avenir ». Il inclut un volet de 750 millions d’euros visant à développer de nouvelles formes de valorisation et de numérisations des contenus culturels, scientifiques et éducatifs.

[* Both versions are from the “Press Release” distributed via email on February 10, 2011, by the BnF.]

–oOo–

Tortoises are said to have better track records than hares, long-term — and, besides, it is not always entirely clear who is the “hare” and who the “tortoise”, until the end of the race.

Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com

–oOo–

FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal                   ISSN 1071-5916

FYI France (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic journal published since 1992 as a small-scale, personal experiment, in the creation of large- scale “information overload”, by Jack Kessler.

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