On Tuesday, as it became clear that the Republicans really would win the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich made a pledge to the American people. He didn't talk about the balanced budget amendment or term limits or cutting taxes.
He talked about information.
Gingrich promised to make everything Congress does available electronically. Once the Republicans run the House, he said, Americans will be able to call up every bill, every committee report, every speech on their personal computers. Anyone with a computer and a modem will have access to the full records of the Congress.
Open government. Very nice. Very visionary.
Just what I would expect from the man I first met in 1983 at the World Science Fiction convention. Any politician who even thinks of campaigning at the WorldCon--much less one who gives a speech there when he's still an obscure backbencher from Georgia;is going to be big on the information age.
Gingrich's pledge calls to mind a commonplace vision of the age of abundant information. Everyone, it's said, will have access to everything, to all the world's data. Each of us will be able to select exactly what we want--to tailor our own newspapers, to check up on politicians, to send instantaeous letters and get instantaeous replies.
There's only one thing wrong with this vision. It ignores our most limited resource: time.
Gingrich promises to put Congress on-line, and I think that's a great idea. It will certainly make my job easier.
But as one of the half dozen Americans who actually read the original Clinton health-care bill, I can tell you that very few people have any interest in slogging through the virtual Congressional Record. That's what they pay me to do.
Or what they pay lobbyists to do. Or public-interest groups. Or scholars. Or radio talk show hosts. Or, yes, even congressional reporters.
Most people don't want raw data. They want information, or knowledge, or perhaps even wisdom. They want someone else to take the time to sift through the data, to select what is true or interesting or important, and to tell them about it.
And that is why the age of abundant media, the age in which the pipelines through which information flows become cheap and plentiful, is not the age of the atomized, individualized reader. It is the age of the editor. And the age of new media communitities.
The interaction of editors and readers--or, to put it more broadly, producers and audiences--is creating powerful, overlapping communities with far different assumptions from those of the mass media.
Over the last year, I've attended several conferences and read countless articles on "new media." And what people always mean by that term is the Internet in its various manifestations. The Internet is in late 1994 what John Markoff of TheNew York Times calls, with some justification, "the national hoola hoop." But the age of abundant media didn't start with the Internet.
Our vision of "media" is shaped by network television and daily newspapers. Until very recently, Americans considered it quite normal to assume that "the media" would mean three, largely homogeneous, centrally produced sources of information catering to an audience in the tens, or even hundreds, of millions. And that the Big Three networks would be supplemented primarily by monopoly daily newspapers catering to the broadest possible local community.