Mysteries of Online 5: Information Flows that Deconstruct

February 14, 2009

I have some edits to stuff into the Outlook section of my new study Google: The Digital Gutenberg, but I saw another write up about the buzz over a Wall Street Journal editor’s comment that “Google devalues everything.” (Man, those categorical affirmatives are really troubling to this old, addled goose. Everything. Right.) The story in TechDirt has a nifty sub head, “From The No Wonder No One Uses It Department”. You can read the story here. I agree with the whining about the demise of traditional media’s hegemony. For me the most interesting comment in this article was:

The value of the web and Google is that it lets people look at many sources and compare and contrast them qualitatively. Putting up a paywall is what devalues the content. It makes it harder to access and makes it a lot less useful. People today want to share the news and spread the news and discuss the news with others. As a publisher, your biggest distributors should be your community. And what does the WSJ want to do? Stop the community from promoting them. I can’t think of anything that devalues their content more.

TechDirt and the addled goose are standing feather to feather.

I do, however, want to pull out my musty notes from a monograph I have not yet started to write. As you may have noticed, the title of my essay is “mysteries of online,” and this is the fifth installment. I am recycling ideas from my 30 plus years in the digital information game. If you are not sure about the nature of my observations, you will want to read the disclaimer on my About page. Offended readers can spare me the jibes about the addled nature of my views in this free publication.


The future of traditional media. The ground opened and the car crashed. The foundation of the road was gone, eroded by unseen forces. Source:

What’s under the surface of the dead tree executive’s comments and also driving in part the TechDirt observations are some characteristics about electronic information. More people have immersed themselves in easy and painless online access. As a result, the flow of “real time” has become the digital amphetamine that whips up excitement and in some cases makes or breaks business models. I want to summarize several of the factors that are now mostly overlooked.

Information Has Force

The idea is that in the post Gutenberg era, digital information can carry quite a wallop. Some people and institutions can channel that force. Others get flattened. My father, for example, cannot figure out what a newstream is on my Overflight service. He simply tunes out the flow because his mental framework is not set up to understand that the flow is the value. One can surf on the flow; one can drown in the flow.


Will these kids read dead tree newspapers, magazines, and textbooks as I did in the 1950s?

Information Erodes

Just like a sandblaster cleaning an old car’s chassis, information has can abrade. Fire information flows at a hierarchical organization and the traditional information supports become weaker. The structure collapses. In my research the notion of a matrix-style organization is a reaction to information flows. With a matrix or other “flat” set up, acceleration occurs. Some acceleration is positive; some, not so good. Check out the collapse of BearStearns for negative.



Information Morphs

In the digital information world, one piece of information is interesting. But excitement results when two or more pieces of information fuse, mutate, and flow. My high school English teacher Edwardine Sperling would have a real problem with doing “library research” in today’s world. She wanted everyone in 1959 to conduct information collection, analysis, and synthesis one way. No more. The notion of “real time” information makes traditional methods less useful. The methods are not eliminated, but options exist. Different tools are necessary to keep track of fluid information that mutates and replicates almost as if information had its own inner drive.

Information Destabilizes

When information is no longer “fixed” or even “relatively fixed”, entities and processes based on permanence begin to settle. You have seen pictures–like the one above–that show a car driving along a familiar street swallowed by a sink hole. That erosion and collapse when a certain stress is applied is what’s behind the assertion that Google is devaluing “everything.” Google is not the cause. Google is a surfer on information flows. The Wall Street Journal dinosaur’s statement is that of a 96 pound weakling on the beach griping about the high school quarterback with the girls clinging to his muscled frame. The fix is to go to the gym. Yapping won’t solve the problem. While these traditional media wizards complain, the foiundations of their business methods and processes are weaking. Organizational osteoporosis, not concrete and steel, ensures their fragility. Even a minor what to the ear will send these institutions reeling like a Sigma Chi on a bender.


Information weakens the “bones” of the traditional information business model. Fragility leads to breakage. Breakage can lead to withering away.

Information Is Magnetic

When information is charged by moving through individuals, systems, and methods, it becomes magnetic. Early adopters and young people respond to “weak” magnetic forces. That’s why social systems like are a mystery to most of the old geese around my pond in Harrod’s Creek. As the magnetic force of the information increases, then more people get “pulled” into the system. Look at Google’s Web search market share. Google has a heck of a pull. The paper Financial Times or Wall Street Journal has a weaker pull and it operates on a demographic that is not in step with the weak forces in information. You can’t “get” magnetism. Magnetism in digital information arises from flows. The analogy with field theory is not perfect, but you have to “generate” an information force. You can’t wish it into existence in my experience.

What’s the Fix?

To wrap up, when one looks at these “mysteries” of digital informatoin as fundamentals, then it become easier to undertand why the Wall Street Journal maven’s remark is evidence of the core perceptual problem in traditional media. These “mysteries” also explain why TechDirt and I see eye to eye on the challenges traditional media face. I don’t know the folks at TechDirt, but it’s clear that digital information has imprinted our perceptual framework in somewhat similar ways. The gulf between how I see information and how the traditional media perceive information is wide and possibly unbridgeable.

Stephen Arnold, February 14, 2009


One Response to “Mysteries of Online 5: Information Flows that Deconstruct”

  1. Daniel Tunkelang on February 14th, 2009 2:51 pm

    While I have a hard time mustering sympathy for traditional media, I have to respectfully dissent on this issue of fact.

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