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Sunday, 29 November 2009

I wonder if I feel sorry for newspapers. Here we have online editors busting a gut to push out stories that people will want to click on, and all the while those same people are clicking on a hundred - or a dozen - different websites as they negotiate their way around the web. The agony of chasing clicks, while browsing readers simply follow their interests. It's a sad tale.

But I have little sympathy for newspaper owners who use dishonest language in their effort to combat the revenue losses. In the case of one newspaper owner, who is very vocal in the debate about eyeballs, the hypocrisy is jarring. Search engines "encourage promiscuity" rather than facilitate broad-ranging interests. Search engines are "stealing" from newspapers by profiting from the way people use the web to find things they care about.

In the case of this news proprietor, who is a political conservative, the irony is thick. That's because the conservative side of politics in Australia has secured ownership of the notion of "choice" through repeated use over a period of many years.

So while I sympathise with online editors who are trying very hard to make their front pages attractive and compelling, I do not like the way that this particular proprietor is trying to fight against 'choice' by complaining that his stable of newspapers has missed the boat.

Nobody told him to put news up for free, in the first place.

But freedom of information - in the economic, as well as the legal, sense - has always been part of the technology paradigm.

I'm reading a book right now - between bouts of social networking - about the pioneers of computing in the US. The book focuses specifically on the major players in the art of computer programming. It takes us back to the days - before the microprocessor - when computers filled entire buildings. But the underlying principles were the same.

It was an era of excitement and discovery. People like Grace Hopper, who was one of the first computer programmers ever, were not impressed by notions of property and commercial-in-confidence, as we learn by reading what author Kurt W. Beyer writes on page 238 of his biography:

The fact that Hopper wholeheartedly welcomed non-UNIVAC personnel to learn about the A-2 compiler sheds some light on her beliefs concerning intellectual property. Hopper did not view software as a commodity to be patented and sold. Rather, she took her cue from the mathematics community. Like most other academics, mathematicians shared information universally, in order to advance knowledge. Though individual efforts were acknowledged by colleagues, advancement in the field was contingent on a communal view of information, community validation, and evolutionary advancement based on previous work. In the same way, software, according to Hopper, was a public good to be shared freely among all users. Complicating software development with secrecy would only inhibit innovation. Learning from the Harvard Computation Laboratory's tendency to isolate itself from other computer developments, Hopper came to realise that a distributed network on inventors, each with his or her particular technical perspective, could sustain a faster rate of innovation in the long term compared to an individual inventor or even an isolated team of inventors.

Beyer takes his understanding of the historical record - gleaned by studying Grace Hopper and her colleagues in detail over a long period - to the next step, as we read next.

The freeware and open source movements of the present day preserve this doctrine. The roots, however, go back to Hopper and her team of distributed inventors.

Likewise, in an online emporium of distributed news-makers, each person circulating - using their web browser - on the complex grid, has opportunities to learn that our forebears never did. This raises certain ontological questions, such as the nature of the modern consciousness.

If we're all connected to this grid, and if we read broadly, what sort of citizens does that make us? Rather than sticking to one outlet, one newspaper with its ingrained viewpoints and biases, we're able to surf along the top of the swell of news. We end up back at the beach, of course, but we've had possibly a better ride.

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