Meanwhile, it’s a long weekend up here in the USA, and largely a quiet one for me. No trips planned, and beyond a bit of rugby practice, relatively little activity. To be honest, it’s a bit boring, but I’m trying to use it as an opportunity to get some reading done. It seems to be a theme of holiday periods…
To begin with I’m reading “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson (yes, yes, I know, I’m kind of late to the party). It makes for an interesting thesis about how changes in economic drivers such as distribution, creation, and access have upended the orthodoxies around consumer behavior. Whilst the core thesis that there is a massive aggregate market for small market goods is obvious in our era of Amazon, eBay, and Spotify, I would love to see if and how the author’s thinking has altered in the 10 or so years since publication, especially regarding his observations on the decline of superstars and blockbuster films. In an era of Taylor Swift, Netflix moving to producing its own content, and a cinema box office record breaker seemingly every month, is mass culture resurgent or just making a last gasp effort at relevance?
Certainly the book has been stimulating, especially in forcing me to consider how long-tail economics might apply to the business models of the performing arts and museum sectors… but that will have to be a discussion for another time, once a work policy is in place.
So instead, I’ll focus on why I’m reading on a long weekend in the first place. It’s an insatiable thirst for knowledge. It can’t be helped. I’m intellectually greedy, with a voracious and rapacious appetite for information. If knowledge is power, then megalomania is my condition.
Knowledge enriches us, provides perspectives, builds our capacity to think critically. It dispels doubt, and enables us to create and contribute to the human race. The problem is, there is so much knowledge out there. Even in an age before Google, before the repositories of the world were at the end of an internet connection, the tide of information was overwhelming.
As a young student in the late 90’s I visited the Australian National University for the first time, a place that would eventually become my undergraduate Alma Mater. There, I visited the Hancock Library, and wandered through the Borgesian multitudes of shelves and stacks, crammed with bound volumes of research journals on all sorts of esoteric subjects. Hundreds of years of research and human endeavor, compressed into a nondescript multi-story building that did its best to hide amongst the trees that dominated the campus.
Feelings of awe gave way to a slight sadness. I was struck by the thought that even in a lifetime, I would never be able to read them all, to absorb all the information on those shelves. Nobody could. It was even difficult to guarantee that beyond the author and a few directly involved parties, that any of the works would be read at all after their creation (see, for example, my undergraduate research thesis).
Knowledge, it would seem, is the ultimate long tail scenario.
By necessity, essential ideas and works gravitate to the high demand end of the curve (or as Anderson calls it, the “Short Head”). Things like basic mathematics and language skills are essential to function in society, and there will always be a market for it. But beyond that, as knowledge becomes more specialized, the number of people capable of parsing it and applying it drops off. What’s more, the number of people capable of parsing it and linking it to other potentially obscure sources of knowledge drops off even more greatly. Factor in the probability of those people even coming across the sources of knowledge required to make those links, and we find that the odds are vanishingly small.
I wonder what discoveries we have missed because serendipity has failed us. Whether the people who could link the concepts together to solve the big problems haven’t been in the right place at the right time, or other factors like language barriers have prevented awareness.
When I worked in intellectual property, our job was to hunt down obscure information and link it together in the context of some greater problem. More than once I would find myself buried in a machine translation of a 1960’s Russian journal on some esoteric branch of technology, searching to see whether it anticipated a modern day invention (and every now and then, it would).
Whilst doing that job, the thought often occurred that when it comes to knowledge generation, there is a lot of inefficiency. As a society we do a lot of reinventing of the wheel.
A part of me agitates for a solution, an evolution of search engines to a system that can tie information together, and unearth conceptual links hitherto unseen. However I cannot help but wonder whether this will simply amplify the amount of knowledge available, and make it even more difficult to reduce to practical application. Will the amount of information grow even greater and more incomprehensible?
The other part of me is fine with that scenario. Let the scale of information be larger than we can comprehend. There is a certain satisfaction in tilting at the windmill, attempting to learn, discover, explore, and create as much as possible, even when the amount that is out there to discover is growing faster than you can move. Gaining knowledge has its own fulfilling quality, a sense of personal achievement and a glimmer of hope that it may find use in the future.
The sadness I felt upon walking through the ceiling high stacks of the Hancock Library passed. In its place was an insatiable lust to discover and absorb it. Picking a book off a random shelf, I opened it and started to read.