Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Aug. 23, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance

“You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway.”

A Rare Glimpse of William Burroughs’ Belongings, proclaimed a recent Fast Company headline. But what does “rare” really mean these days? A photograph indexed by Google is hardly “rare,” what with being instantly accessible to a few billion people. The real question, then, becomes how many will actually access what’s accessible and how this changes the rhetoric of rarity.

Over the past few years, the fledgling field of the digital humanities has made significant strides with a number of ambitious digitization projects bringing online rare cultural artifacts — manuscripts, canvases, celluloid, marginalia — that used to rot away in institutional archives. But while these efforts, both government-subsidized and privately initiated, may have made a wealth of information accessible, it’s an entirely different story to ask how many people these materials have reached — how many people have actually gained access to them — and it’s one that harks back to the shifting relationship between scarcity and value. James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Floodputs it rather elegantly:

We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.

Historically, the two main types of obstacles to information discovery have been barriers of awareness, which encompass all the information we can’t access because we simply don’t know about its existence in the first place, and barriers of accessibility, which refer to the information we do know is out there but remains outside of our practical, infrastructural or legal reach. What the digital convergence has done is solve the latter, by bringing much previously inaccessible information into the public domain, made the former worse in the process, by increasing the net amount of information available to us and thus creating a wealth of information we can’t humanly be aware of due to our cognitive and temporal limitations, and added a third barrier — a barrier of motivation.

Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

Here’s roughly how it works: I love biking and used to live in Philadelphia, home to one of the largest connected bike trails in North America. One year, I decided to move to an apartment that was tragically outside of my budget and far from where most of my friends lived, but it was right off one of the bike trails, so I figured it would be worth it — I figured that because the trail was so easily accessible to me, I’d access it frequently, a lifestyle premium I’d be willing to sacrifice other things for. In the years prior to moving, I lived much farther from the trail, but would bike there at least once every couple of months. And what happened when I moved closer? I went biking a total of once during the 18 months I lived there. Why? Because the trail was so readily available to me that I no longer had that nagging motivation to make time for it and actively pursue it.

In a lot of ways, we do that with information. If we somehow stumble upon an incredible archive of, say, digitized “rare” vinyl LP’s or unpublished manuscripts by a famous author, and it tickles our fancy, perhaps we bookmark it, perhaps we save it to Delicious or Instapaper, perhaps we take a quick skim, but more likely than not, we shove it into some cognitive corner and fail to spend time with it, exploring and learning, assuming that it’s just there, available and accessible anytime. The relationship between ease of access and motivation seems to be inversely proportional because, as the sheer volume of information that becomes available and accessible to us increases, we become increasingly paralyzed to actually access all but the most prominent of it — prominent by way of media coverage, prominent by way of peer recommendation, prominent by way of alignment with our existing interests. This is why information that isn’t rare in technical terms, in terms of being free and open to anyone willing to and knowledgeable about how to access it, may still remain rare in practical terms, accessed by only a handful of motivated scholars.

Take Google with its ideal of information as “universally accessible” — an admirable ideal, and a necessary condition for access to information, but certainly not a sufficient condition. How people access information via Google’s search results depends on how Google ranks that information — the higher up a search result is, the more people are likely to access it. But there’s a Catch-22 — one of the key factors in how search results get ranked is how many people have accessed that page, and how many other pages around the web have linked to it, an implicit seal of approval. So an esoteric piece of content, however valuable and interesting, will remain confined to the niche community of scholars or hobbyists who have accessed it and linked to it, ranking low enough in Google’s search results to prevent all but those actively seeking it out from accessing it and engaging with it. Instead, the trivial thrives and the remarkable remains, tragically often, rare.

Eli Pariser speaks about this worrisome phenomenon in his excellent book, The Filter Bubble. In this interview, he points to human-driven information curation as the antidote to this algorithmic disconnect between access and accessibility:

The primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.

And this is what I believe: Information curators are that necessary cross-pollinator between accessibility and access, between availability and actionability, guiding people to smart, interesting, culturally relevant content that “rots away” in some digital archive, just like its analog versions used to in basement of some library or museum or university.

Because here’s the thing: Knowledge is not a lean-back process; it’s a lean-forward activity. Just because public domain content is online and indexed, doesn’t mean that those outside the small self-selected group of scholars already interested in it will ever discover it and engage in it. (The relationship between public domain, access and accessibility gets even more complicated when copyright law is involved, as evidenced in the recent notorious Aaron Swarz / JSTOR case.)

It is information curators who push us to lean forward by guiding our curiosity towards the kinds of content we would’ve never ordinarily found but are infinitely glad we did.

Take Flickr Commons, the fantastic digital library that aims to “show you hidden treasures in the world’s public photography archives.” While Flickr Commons hosts thousands of images from leading cultural institutions like The Library of Congress, The Smithsonian, The New York Public Library and The National Archive UK, most of the gems in its collection, while accessible, remain indeed hidden treasures, unaccessed by the general “public” of the public domain. Poking around, I recently discovered some astounding photos of the first Australian expedition to Antarctica from 1911-1914, did a bit of additional research, and wrote a short article highlighting them and lightly contextualizing them in contemporary conversations about everything from photography to climate change. To my semi-surprise, the content really resonated with readers. The Flickr set, which had been available and accessible on Flickr Commons since 2009, went from several thousand views to over 350,000 views within a few weeks.

Since curiosity is the gateway to access, we can’t outsource access, even in the context of the greatest possible accessibility.

Something similar happened with these antique lantern slides of life in Egypt in the early 1900s from the Brooklyn Museum’s archive, particularly interesting when examined in the context of the recent political turmoil in Egypt. Recently, Alan Taylor took the same approach on The Atlantic‘s In Focus, unearthing and framing remarkable color photographs of the American home front in WWII from The Library of Congress. Other curators like Dan Colman at Open Culture, Andy Baio of Waxy and the human engine behind MetaFilter do this constantly, by bringing to light fascinating text, image and video from the web’s obscure corners and contextualizing it for a general-interest audience.

What all of this means in terms of the three barriers of access is that digital archivists solve the barrier of accessibility, by making content previously tucked away in analog archives available to the world wide web, and content curators solve the barrier of awareness, by bringing to our (limited) attention noteworthy pieces of information from these digitized archives and, ideally, contextualizing them within our existing framework of knowledge and interests. But digital archivists and content curators won’t solve all of our informational problems. Surely, we can outsource digitization and accessibility, and we can even outsource curation, but we cannot outsource curiosity, the highest form of motivation. And since curiosity is the gateway to access, we can’t outsource access, even in the context of the greatest possible accessibility.

What great curators do is reverse-engineer this dynamic, framing cultural importance first to magnify our motivation to engage with information. Someone who simply shares a link to a beautiful illuminated manuscript from the 13th century might grab your ephemeral attention for a fleeting moment of visual delight, but someone who shares that manuscript in the context of how it relates to today’s ideals and challenges of publishing, to our shared understanding of creative labor and the changing value systems of authorship, will help integrate this archival item with your existing knowledge and interests, bridging your curiosity with your motivations to truly engage with the content.

Because in a culture where abundance has replaced scarcity as our era’s greatest information problem, without these human sensemakers and curiosity sherpas, even the most abundant and accessible information can remain tragically “rare.”

Image by Lawrence OP used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 23, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
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