Information Work in an Era of Information Abundance

I’m going to excerpt about fifty percent of David Frum’s review from this weekend’s New York Times Book Review (“Unhappy Days,” 5 September 2010, p. BR20):

Art historians tell us that photography revolutionized painting. Suddenly there was a better way of recording the physical appearance of things, and artists had to discover new purposes for brush and pigment. But for those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual. Long after the Impressionists and Cubists and Futurists, there must have been serious portraitists who continued to earn a living depicting brides on their wedding day or businessmen made good.

I kept thinking of those backward­looking artists all the way through Laura Kalman’s “Right Star Rising.” As a work of history about the Ford and Carter years, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.

But the question it raises — and it’s not a question about this book alone — is: What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I’m an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either.

He gets a little more specific than this, makes a few examples, but that’s about all he has to say about the book. It’s nothing against Ms. Kalman — as Mr. Frum writes, “it’s not a question about this book alone.” The analogy to painting in an era of photography is apt. We live in a time in which our relation to information is changing. Problems of availability have — at least in the developed world — been for the most part solved. So like the painter, how are information workers to make their way in this world?

I’m not going to wind this post up with some pat answer. I think that Mr. Frum is also correct in not making a teleologically overdetermined analogy. “For those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual,” he writes. Painters only found a post-photography life through protracted experimentation.

I think of Harold Bloom’s idea of the anxiety of influence as much more than a theory of poetry. In an age of mass information, all information workers labor under the anxiety of influence (Jimmy Wales is our Milton). No one should think that a publisher is going to cut down a few hundred acres of trees for more of the same.

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