The Politics of Choice in Information Publication, Online and in Print
Does free-flowing data come at a price?
As you probably know by now, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its last issue yesterday. After almost 150 years in print, the paper is now entirely online, and struggling for survival.
For many people, the loss of our local newspapers is a natural progression, a sign of the times, and for environmentally conscious thinkers, it's a step in the right direction for the planet. Curbing our paper consumption is vital to the sustainability of human life in relation to the natural world.
And after all, it's not as if we're losing our news with the closing of newspapers. In fact, we have more access to information than ever before, thanks to the bottomless wellspring of knowledge that is the enviro-friendly internet.
Who ever said anything about the internet being environmentally friendly?
A recent article in the Times Online points out that every Google search we conduct, and every Tweet we post, carries an environmental footprint. And sure, this footprint is tiny, but even tiny things, compounded millions and billions of times, begin to add up, in this case into significant energy consumption.
The fact is that because the web seems so limitless, so bottomless, we tend to thoughtlessly overwhelm it with unedited, stream-of-conscious content, that is often repeated, over and over and over again, creating a system that is essentially bloated, and potentially more environmentally harmful than need be.
And this brings to mind an interesting, and important distinction between print and the web, which is rapidly being lost in our love affair with unlimited free information. This distinction is that in print, information mattered. It had value. The value of information without restriction? I have to wonder…
Let me explain. When something is being prepared for print, whether it be a newspaper, a brochure, or a business card, writers, editors, and information designers have to carefully consider what fits, and what doesn't. This requires considering the quality and value of the information you're about to print, and making judgments about what makes the cut and what doesn't. If you have a great team working on making these judgments, you end up with a great paper, full of information that is insightful, relevant, and useful.
Of course, the creation of such a printed offering has never been easy. It's always hard to edited out information, articles, and sections of reports that there is simply not space for. And now, thanks to the internet, that need to cut, to edit, to make determinations about quality, has disappeared.
From a post-modern perspective, this is heavenly. Why, after all, should a few lordly judges of information's quality determine what we are all permitted to take in? Why shouldn't anyone be allowed to publish any kind of novel? Why shouldn't all our opinions have equal opportunity to be aired?
Thanks to the web, this is now possible. There is more information available online now than has been printed throughout history. But this massive, collective confessional journal is not without its price. There is an environmental impact to using and distributing content online, and the bigger the web gets, the more significant this impact becomes.
Beyond this environmental consequence, which could be argued to pale in comparison to that of paper consumption, there is the consequence that something in the quality and value of information disappears forever. No longer is it something to be treasured, to be carefully considered, and appreciated as important. Information, on the internet, is a free-flowing, torrential river – gorgeous to observe, but difficult to navigate, and perhaps unstructured to a destructive degree.
As much as I value the web's ability to connect and allow communication between people the world over, I reject its ability to replace print. In print, information and images have value, not on top of, but because of the expensive, time-consuming, and environmentally impactful nature of the process.
Online, where few people consider the ecological cost of clicking, information, images, and our ability to absorb them, flow into a jumble where the care for process found in print is whittled into nonexistence. I hope that this will change, that as the internet moves into its maturity, we will again adopt the constraints of editing for the space available to us in a sustainable web. But I fear that we won't, and that as print news slowly moves into extinction, something of inestimable value to our development as a species will be lost forever.