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The Filter Test

I believe it’s my turn to play the part of the skeptic, but before I do so, permit me to share the fruits of reconnaissance. In an itty-bitty footnote in Open Access, Peter Suber cites Clay Shirky’s twenty-minute talk at the Web 2.0 Expo (9/19/08), “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure.”

As the title suggests, Shirky believes that information overload is nothing new. By the sixteenth century, the cost of book production plunged, print production exploded, and for the first time the average citizen had access to more books than he read in a lifetime (certainly we might prod Shirky’s definition of “average citizen” here). Despite this tendency towards “overload,” the problem of risk—to print in advance of demand entails risk—fell squarely on the publisher, who functioned as both editor and business manager. Thus, economic logic made the publisher the reader’s content filter.

The Internet scrambled that logic by hacking away the cost of production and heralding what Shirky calls “post Gutenberg economics.” Now that anyone and everyone can publish, the quality filter sits “downstream” from the site of production—the content consumer. That consumer relies upon automatic and manual filters that, in turn, require regular retuning. Shirky’s argument is that we experience “information overload” when our filters lag behind.

Suber touches upon the issue of filtering. He writes, “If our machines don’t have access, we don’t have access” (120). My concern is that in his emphasis on expanding access, he neglects organization. Certainly, in principle, I love the idea of having access to more information for research. What worries me is the state of that information. How am I to use—and cite—a deluge of ostensibly excellent yet preprint versions of journal articles, dissertations, and books (in the instance of green OA)? My fear is that the browsers upon which I rely will bury the research I need and surface that which I don’t. My fears are likely unfounded (this is new to me), but I hope that alongside any effort to expand accessibility there will be equal attention to how, where, and in what form that information is preserved.

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