Friday, July 20, 2007
  Blogging blurs the information lines?
The NZ "think tank" Maxim Institute has a short item on blogs in their latest newsletter Real Issues they ask if: "Blogging blurs the information lines"? The post (after all their newsletter is just a blog that does not allow comments - only "letters to the editor") begins with some hyperbole about the venerable tenth birthday of blogging. (From what momentous event do they, or their source the Wall Street Journal date the blog I wonder?) They make a claim that few bloggers would dare sustain that:

Arguably it ranks third only to the invention of the printing press and the internet in the impact it has had on the communications' world.
Using the example of (the topical) "spin doctors" they argue that information is the "most valuable commodity today". This is simply untrue and an indication of how old media savvy people simply do NOT GET the new world. If you think information has significant worth think about the cost of one page of the Encylcopedia Britannica and how this price has changed over time. In my paper "Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as Recapitulation" I calculated:
The cost of information can be approximately measured by calculating the cost per page of an encyclopaedia (or its equivalent before the modern genre “encyclopaedia” developed). Since the value of money, and indeed exchange rates, change with time and geography, the time worked at an average wage to earn one page of information provides a comparable measure across time. So, in the manuscript age a scribe produced some 150-200 lines per day,[1] and information cost in the order of 8 hours per page.[2] In 1771, when the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was produced it contained 2689 pages of information, and cost ₤600 or 11⅓d per page.[3] The average wage for an English farm labourer at that time is estimated to be about 11½ d per day, so such a servant would have had to work about one day to earn a page of the new publication.[4] Given that farm labourers were paid significantly less than professionals like medieval scribes, and that estimates put the wage of a skilled artisan at this time at about double this,[5] we can suggest that the cost of information had at least halved by this time. By the close of the twentieth century, however, a print copy of the encyclopaedia cost NZ$2,050 but contained nearly 32,000 pages, or about 6.5 cents per page.[6] The average hourly wage was NZ$17.44 giving about 13 seconds per page.[7]

All of these figures concern the cost of information supplied as words on a real page of paper. Electronic information is cheaper still. At the turn of this century the CD-ROM edition cost NZ$100 giving a cost per page equivalent of just over one half second. The graph of this cost is clearly asymptotic, tending towards zero - for half a second’s labour is a very low cost indeed. The information will take hundreds of times longer to read, let alone process and understand. The cost will never reach zero because there is always some cost involved in accessing information, if only things like the electricity required to run the equipment.
So,the major premise of the piece is flawed. Therefore its discussion and conclusions are also inevitably flawed. The conclusion reads:
If it is to genuinely provide us with more information, then blogging relies on our ability to filter information and discern truth. But in an age so skeptical of experts and authority, can we really put blogging to good use?
Wrong and wrong! Because the New World of communications relies on our ability and responsibility to filter information we MUST be skeptical of "experts" and "authority" and so must put blogging to good use!

By the way, if you are a Maxim fan and want to check my "expertise" or "authority" please start from my CV, I'll be delighted if you check my opinion any way you like - you see as a blogger my reputation and therefore readership depends on being reliable as well as entertaining!

[1] or this estimate see Michael Gullick, "How fast did scribes write? Evidence from Romanesque manuscripts," in Making the Medieval Book: techniques of production: proceedings of the Fourth Conference of the Seminar in the History of the Book to 1500, Oxford, July 1992 (ed. Linda L. Brownrigg, Los Altos Hills, Calif.: Anderson-Lovelace / London: Red Gull Press: 1995) 39-58.

[2] The pages of print encyclopedias contain many more words than a manuscript page and my estimate of 8 hours seeks to represent this fact – if one simply measures by the page the figure would be nearer three hours.

[3] The figures are drawn from various editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica article “Encyclopaedia”.

[4] Gregory Clark, "Farm Wages and Living Standards in the Industrial Revolution: England, 1670-1869", The Economic History Review 54,3 (2001) 477-505, esp. 503.

[5] Peter Mathias, The First Industrial Nation: The Economic History of Britain (London: Methuen, 1983) 197.

[6] E-mail response from 16th May 2005.

[7] The New Zealand Official Yearbook 102nd edition (Wellington: Govt. Printer, 2000) 332.

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