Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 11: October 2005


Trends & Quick Takes

The Half-Terabyte Notebook

According to a “Pipeline” item in the August 9, 2005 PC Magazine, we can expect that in three to five years, thanks to perpendicular recording technology. Seagate plans to shift all its drives to the new technology and “foresees fivefold increases in capacity” during that period. In early 2006, expect a 160GB 2.5" drive. A couple years later, don’t be surprised by single desktop 2.5TB drives: That’s terabytes, although it almost certainly means 2.5 trillion characters (a lower figure by roughly 10%; technically, a terabyte should be 1,099,511,600 characters, that is, 10244 ). Hitachi’s aiming for a 1TB 3.5" drive and 20GB microdrives for handheld units.

What the Heck’s Podcasting?

You’ve probably heard about this one: Yet another Pew Internet & American Life poll of internet users asking a clear question about each of eight terms: “Please tell me if you have a good idea what the term means, or if you aren’t really sure what it means?”

Only 9% of respondents said they had a good idea what RSS feeds were, while 13% thought they knew the meaning of podcasting. Truly unfortunately, only 29% knew about phishing! Even worse, only 35% of those with broadband connections thought they knew what phishing was—and 12% of broadband users didn’t know what a firewall is. Now there’s a frightening number. (This all assumes that the sample is truly meaningful. Of numbers called for the survey, 35% resulted in completed surveys; make of that what you will.)

Art on the Cell Phone

“Art finds a mobile home” in the June 2005 EContent is mostly an interesting story about using mobile technology to “bring art to the masses and to provide artists with new outlets and creative forms.” It features the Digital Museum of Modern Art, an entirely virtual museum, and includes some notes about Nokia initiatives, which include “limited editions” that you can pay to download to your phone.

Things get weirder early on. DMOMA’s founder calls mobile “a perfect medium for art” because “it allows users to bypass elite gallery systems and experience art on their terms”—and goes on, “All art can be reduced to a sequence of binary bits—zeroes and ones in endless succession.” One of the artists exults, “There’s no one and nothing between the user and the art. There is no distraction.” That 2" screen? Not a distraction. Reducing, say, Guernica or any Rodin sculpture to “zeroes and ones in endless succession” viewed on a tiny screen? You’ve eliminated elitism and any gap between the user and the art.

Douglas Rushkoff provides the final word: “Because art is no longer a physical thing, it has a disposable quality to it. When something is temporary, artists are going to have to create more of it.” Rushkoff’s a communications professor, so his declaration that physical art is already over, kaput, finis is presumably not just sloppy communication.

Rushkoff, having written off all physical art, thinks people won’t go for $35 for one piece of art on the phone, but might pay “$135 to subscribe to two months of images from certain artists.” Wow: Another $67.50 a month for some transient art on a 2" screen. Makes museum memberships look really cheap.

I’m not saying you can’t have successful art experiences on the tiny screen. I am saying that reducing “all art” to a bunch of bits and bytes and proclaiming the end of art as a physical thing is…well, I suppose “philistine” isn’t politically correct. One comment along the way is just plain strange: “Much art is in galleries or in private collections. Mobile makes it possible for anyone to see art. It’s no longer a privilege for the few.” But the art in private collections won’t be available on mobile phones—or has “art” become some interchangeable thing like sand or water?

Will the Internet Put Public Libraries Out of Business?

That’s “just one question” from Wired, asked of Michael Gorman, Jessamyn West, and Sue Davidson of the Internet Public Library. I could grump about Davidson’s answer, which seems to ignore the ongoing importance of book collections to say that “their role” will be “managed, vetted storehouses of organized data” with librarians “responsible for licensing, interpreting, and archiving information.” (I’m reminded of why I’ve always disliked the name of IPL…and sometimes the assumptions of its people.)

Then there’s the answer from Jessamyn West:

I can see it happening. The people who can afford to buy computers and Internet service often stay home to read and do their research, which means that libraries are increasingly becoming places where poor people go to use public services. Meanwhile, communities all over the country have to make tough decisions about what should receive funding. When it comes down to a choice between putting money toward the police department and the library, there’s no question which one has priority.

Arggh. The suggestion that all but the poor are abandoning public libraries is pretty horrendous. Jessamyn says she got a slightly different emailed question, “Do we still need libraries in a digital age?” to which she answered (in part):

Yes.

Is your question really “Do we still need books in a digital age?” in which case, the answer is more complicated, though ultimately yes.

I guess my question for you is “Whose digital age?” because where I work, at public libraries in Central Vermont, the digital age is unfolding much more slowly and to much less fanfare than it is elsewhere… Libraries and librarians help people not get left behind by technology, by democracy, and by people who think that libraries and technology can’t coexist and thrive symbiotically.

We need libraries in any age, they’re the human scale measurement for the information age.

She followed this up with a ten-minute phone call resulting in the first paragraph—and she doesn’t claim that Wired actually misquoted her. While this doesn’t say great things about Wired’s reporting practices, it’s also unfortunate that Jessamyn was unwilling to offer a straightforward “Yes, books are still going to be around, as are libraries.” And add that they will continue to be important public spaces used by all kinds of people, even as they’re important safety nets. If only poor people use libraries in Central Vermont, something is very wrong…

Top 10 Web Fads

That’s the title of a CNET.com item by Molly Wood, one of several “Power of 10” features to celebrate the site’s 10th anniversary. It’s an interesting list; you can go there for details, or just consider how many of these you either visited, heard about, or cared about. (I’m a dud on fads; other than #9 as a reader, I score zero for “visited” and “cared about,” although I certainly heard about all but Ellen Feiss.)

Hampsterdance (1998); Mahir (1999); All your base are belong to us (1998-2001); Dancing baby (1997); Hot or not (2000); Friendster (2003); Ellen Feiss (2002); Star Wars Kid (2002); Blogger (1999); JibJab (2004).

Well? How much of a web fashionista have you been over the past seven years?

Overlap among Search Engines

Here’s another study where the results need to be interpreted fairly carefully—although it doesn’t carry the scent of the rushed-out-the-door “Google’s still bigger than Yahoo!” study. I saw it in the form of an August 2, 2005 Internetnews.com article by Susan Kuchinskas: “Dogpile: Search engines don’t have much in common.” This is PR country, given this lead paragraph’s relevance to the headline:

Dogpile.com, owned by Infospace.com, announced it added results from MSN Search to its meta-search service.

This is “backed up” with the results of a study done at Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State “showing a surprising lack of duplication in the top results of the major search engines” [emphasis added] (where “major” means Yahoo!, Google, MSN and Ask Jeeves—in other words, the four used by Dogpile).

When the researchers ran 12,570 different queries through search engines at Yahoo, Google, MSN and Ask Jeeves, they found that only 1.1 percent of the results appeared on all four engines, while 84.9 percent of the top results were unique to one engine. Only 2.6 percent of the results where shared by three search providers and 11.4 percent were delivered by two search engines.

The researchers examined both paid and natural search results, but they tabulated only the results on the first page.

That first paragraph needs rewriting: “only 1.1 percent of the results appeared within the [top 25? top 10? What constitutes the “first page”?] on all four engines,” and so on. It isn’t true (or claimed) that 84.9% of results are unique to one engine; it is true that “relevance” algorithms vary widely. The spin from Infospace is based on this and the claim that “most people never go beyond page one.” Interestingly, Yahoo! had the highest percentage of unique first-page results (71.2%), Google the lowest (66.4%).

The claim is that Dogpile can somehow combine these four disparate first pages to produce the best first page—“based on consumer clickthroughs in the past” and at overlap in results. Dogpile intermingles paid and “organic” results, a true boon to merchants.

I’m surprised that a university research project studied “lack of overlap in sponsored links”—surely that’s entirely a commercial issue? Maybe not. Oh, and there’s the lovely final paragraph, in case you’re in any doubt as to the scholarly nature of this piece:

Dogpile.com also worked with Web traffic analytics firm comScore Media Metrix to determine searchers’ success, based on the number of times users clicked on a link. ComScore found that only slightly more than half of all Web searches resulted in clicks on a link on the first page. Dogpile.com did better, garnering first-page clicks 63 percent of the time.

Are your clicks being monitored? Do you expect different search engines to order results in the same way? Perhaps more to the point, do you turn to Dogpile as a first choice in searching—and are you more likely to do so with the knowledge that it treats sponsored links as “first-page results”?

Quicker Takes

The July 2005 PC Magazine includes a surprising discussion of “undiscovered Office extras”—a lot of extra software tucked away in MS Office 2003, including a picture manager, built-in document scanning (OCR right in Office!), a clip organizer with a collection of clip art, and more.

Ø    Not to pick on the June 2005 EContent, but Kinley Levack makes one humongous assumption in the lead to “HopStop.com: Mastering mass transit.” Levack says, “New Yorkers always look like they know where they’re going, barreling down avenues, cell phone in hand. The secret is that they don’t, or rather they haven’t—until now.” [Emphasis added.] Right. New Yorkers are all lost but walking fast so we don’t notice. Sure they are. I know I’m always lost in the city where I live and work unless I’ve got a cell phone or PDA feeding me directions!

Ø    In February, I mentioned a skeptical commentary on multitasking (and left a word out in the process), suggesting that multitasking—or “continuous partial attention,” if you prefer—is a way to do several things badly instead of doing one thing well. A Johns Hopkins study appearing in The Journal of Neuroscience offers a specific reason this might be so: Evidence that “attention is strictly limited—a zero-sum game.” The example used is talking on a cell phone while driving (and I see too many counterexamples to buy the idea that people talking on the phone aren’t distracted drivers), but the test involved recording brain activity while students watched a computer display with “rapidly changing display of multiple letters and digits” while listening to three voices speaking letters and digits. “They found that when the subjects directed their attention to visual tasks, the auditory parts of their brain recorded decreased activity, and vice versa.” They also found, to their surprise, that parts of the brain previously thought to be involved only in visual functions were affected when a participant was asked to pay more attention to the voices. The short finding: “When attention is focused on listening, vision is affected even at very early stages of visual perception.”

Ø    In the bad old days of “Cheap shots,” I might have taken on David Bollier’s “Why online commons are besting the mainstream media,” posted July 19 at onthecommons.org. Bollier is excited about net media “empowering individuals” and “out-competing the market!”—and he just loves oversimplifications and universals. He seems to suggest that podcasting only works with Apple iPods—but that’s OK, “as iPods become ubiquitous.” Wow. Ten million in a country of 300 million is “ubiquitous.” He says most TV is “banal, insipid and uninspired” because “our primary means of communication” have been turned over to a handful of people—where, presumably, we’ll get much better-crafted TV and the like when everyone’s doing it. (Surely you note that the average blog is better-written than a Stephen King or Gene Wolfe novel, don’t you?) Finally, naturally, “we are forcing the mass media to re-tool its business models in order to compete with the strange new forms of non-market value-creation.” (This post is full of exclamation points and some sense that commercialization is still “free” and “the commons” as long as it’s not Big Media. Or maybe I misunderstand.)

Ø    Independent DVD replicators are upset with MPEG LA, the agency that handles royalties for DVDs, and are claiming that the companies in MPEG LA are violating European Union law. Why? Not because the royalty fees to produce DVDs have gone up. They haven’t: They’ve gone down from $0.166 in the late 1990s to around $0.11 today. So what’s the beef? DVD fabricators could charge studios about $1 per disc in the late 1990s—but the market’s so competitive that they can now only charge about $0.30. Instead of paying 16.6% royalty, they’re paying 37%, and they say that’s not fair and reasonable. It is, of course, how patents work. The patent holder is not inherently required to account for the fact that licensors have entered an increasingly competitive market; indeed, that competitive market affirms that the patent holder is behaving in a fair, reasonable, non-discriminatory manner.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 11, Whole Issue 67, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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