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When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive

When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive
Source: Jacqueline Jing Lin via Giphy
The Information
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Now the information, in "real time," is considered a birthright.

What do you do when you have everything at last? Daniel Dennett imagined—in 1990, just before the Internet made this dream possible—that electronic networks could upend the economics of publishing poetry. Instead of slim books, elegant specialty items marketed to connoisseurs, what if poets could publish online, instantly reaching not hundreds but millions of readers, not for tens of dollars but for fractions of pennies? That same year, Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey, a publisher, conceived of the English Poetry Full-Text Database as he walked one day through the British Library, and four years later he had produced it—not the present or future of poetry, but the past, and not, at first, online but in four compact discs, 165,000 poems by 1,250 poets spanning thirteen centuries, priced at $51,000. Readers and critics had to figure out what to make of this. Not read it, surely, the way they would read a book. Read in it, perhaps. Search it, for a word or an epigraph or a fragment half remembered.[…]

Most of Bach's music was unknown to Beethoven; we have it all—partitas, cantatas, and ringtones. It comes to us instantly, or at light speed. it is a symptom of omniscience. It is what the critic Alex Ross calls the Infinite Playlist, and he sees how mixed is the blessing: "anxiety in place of fulfillment, an addictive cycle of craving and malaise. No sooner has one experience begun than the thought of what else is out there intrudes." The embarrassment of riches. Another reminder that information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.

Strategies emerge for coping. There are many, but in essence they all boil down to two: filter and search. The harassed consumer of information turns to filters to separate the metal from the dross; filters include blogs and aggregators—the choice raises issues of trust and taste. The need for filters intrudes on any thought experiment about the wonders of abundant information. When Dennett imagined his Complete Poetry Network, he saw the problem. "The obvious counterhypothesis arises from population memetics," he said. "If such a network were established, no poetry lover would be willing to wade through thousands of electronic files filled with doggerel, looking for good poems." Filters would be needed—editors and critics. "They flourish because of the short supply and limited capacity of minds, whatever the transmission media between minds." When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.

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