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January 27 2011

07:42

Davos: Too little content

The one interesting thing I’ve heard so far at Davos this year is that the world doesn’t have too much content. It has too little. So says Philip Parker of INSAED, who is doing fascinating work with automatic creation of content. He’s not doing it for evil purposes: content farms and spam. He is doing it to fill in knowledge that is missing in the world, especially in smaller cultures and languages.

Parker’s system has written tens of thousands of books and is even creating fully automated radio shows in many languages, some of which have never been used for weather reports (they don’t have words for “degree” or “celsius”). He used his software to create a directory of tropical plants that didn’t exist. And he has radio beaming out to farmers in poor third-world nations.

I’m fascinated by what Parker’s project says about our attitudes toward content: that we in the West think there’s too much of it (we’re overloaded); that content is that which content creators create; that content has to be owned; that it has to be inefficient and expensive to be good and useful.

In the U.S., there already is a company that automates the writing of sports stories (another straight line). Thomson Reuters has been automatically spitting out formatted financial stories since 2006. So this is nothing new, except that Parker is putting the notion to new use.

I’m intrigued by the potential uses of Parker’s content extruder. For example, I am on the board of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and I imagine this technology could be used to deliver content, especially more current content — aurally — to its clients, whom I say don’t have learning disabilities but who learn differently.

Now tie that notion to the third world and we can even come to define literacy differently. If we can inform and educate people in their own languages through listening — rather than insisting on reading text — then haven’t we expanded the world of the literate greatly? Don’t we have better-informed nations and economies?

Academics from the University of Southern Denmark say that we are passing through the other side of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, returning to oral exchange and distribution of knowledge. Parker can serve that shift with his audio content.

He also helps us expand the reach and use of content, for his technology can gather bits of information from here and there that fit together and put them in a new form that is newly usable. It’s the Wikipedia worldview. Indeed, I suggested to Parker that he could help Wikipedia meet one of its key strategic goals — creating deeper content in more languages — through the automated generation of the first draft of articles, paving the way for editors.

Parker looks for content that is formulaic. That’s what his technology can replace. He studied TV news and found that 70% of its content is formulaic. No surprise. Most of it could be replaced with a machine.

That’s not just my joke and insult. The more efficient we make the creation of content, the less we will waste on repetitive tasks with commodified results, and the more we can concentrate our valuable and scarce resources on necessity and quality. Certain people will likely screech that such thinking and technology further deprofessionalizes the alleged art of creating content. So be it.

November 21 2010

16:25

Who says our way is the right way?

As I sit on the board of Reading for the Blind & Dyslexic, I have been thinking about the different ways people learn. RFB&D gives students the tools to learn by listening. We call that a disability. I think it may soon be seen as an advantage.

A group of Danish academic say we are passing through the other side of what they wonderfully call the Gutenberg Parenthesis, leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.

That’s what makes me think that RFB&D’s clients may end up with a leg up. They understand better than the textually oriented among us how to learn through hearing. Rather than being seen as the people who need extra help, perhaps they will be in the position to give the rest of us help.

And I thought that as I read Matt Richtel’s piece in the New York Times today: Growing up digital, wired for distraction. It starts off lamenting that a student got only 43 pages through Cat’s Cradle. But as @HowardOwens responded on Twitter: “Gee, a 17-year-old only gets 43 pages into his summer reading assignment. Like, that’s never happened before.”

Richtel and the experts he calls blame technology, of course, for shortening our attention spans, just as Nick Carr and Andrew Keen do, lamenting the change. But the assumption they all make is that the way we used to do it is the right way. What if, as I said in Short Attention Span Theater (aka Twitter), we’re evolving:

“Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.”

Richtel, to his credit, focuses at the end of his piece on a distracted student who can, indeed, focus — not on the books he’s assigned but on the video he’s making. Maybe that’s because he’s creating. Maybe it’s because he’s working with tools that give him feedback. Maybe it’s because he is communicating with an audience.

I spend time on this in my book (when I can concentrate on writing it — that is, when I’m not blogging and tweeting as I am right now): Technology brings change; change brings fear and retrenchment. Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us that for 50 years after the invention of the press, we continued to put old wine in this new cask, replicating scribal fonts, content, and models. That’s what’s happening now: We are trying to fit our old world into the new one that is emerging. We’re assuming the old way is the right way.

Mind you, one of the joys of writing this book is that I’ve had cause to start reading books again. I’ll confess I’d fallen off the shelf.

Now I’m enjoying reading books as part of the process of creating, sharing, communicating. I’m learning not just by reading and absorbing but by rethinking and remixing. And I’m thinking the result of my next project may not be a book but something else, or that a book may be a byproduct rather than the goal.

So is this new generation distracted or advanced? How can they best learn? How can they teach? What tools can we use today besides books? What new opportunities do all their tools present? That’s what educators should be asking. That’s the discussion I’d like to see The Times start.

: @SivaVaid(hyanathan) just said on Twitter: “There are no wires in the human mind. So it can’t be ‘rewired’ Get a grip.” Right. What can be rewired are media and education and that’s what we’re seeing happen — or what we should be seeing happen.

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