WATPA: FW: The Twilight of the Information Middlemen

From: Norm Jacknis <norm@jacknis.com>
Date: Sun May 16 2004 - 14:42:09 EDT

Interesting article about some fundamental issues arising from the growth of
the Internet.




May 16, 2004


The Twilight of the Information Middlemen


THE newsstands at La Guardia Airport illustrate a basic problem of the
"information economy." You can pay $5 for a magazine when you walk into the
terminal - or, if you keep walking to the air shuttle gates, you can load up
on free magazines. Publishers can theorize about why it makes sense to give
away what they're also selling: they can attract future subscribers, and
they count even the freeloading readers in their audience. But, mainly, they
are struggling with the longstanding reality that it is harder to put an
exact price on intellectual or creative effort than on, say, a bushel of

Information is both invaluable and impossible to value. Historically, the
main way around this problem has been to pack the results of intellectual or
creative effort into something tangible that can be priced and sold: a book,
a seat in a theater, an hour of an expert's time. Technology causes economic
chaos when it disrupts this packaging plan, as is now happening in the music
industry. Ten years ago, if you wanted to play a song, you had to buy a CD
or a tape. Now, thanks to downloaded MP3 files, you don't - and the chaos is
all the worse because the same young audience that would otherwise be buying
the most CD's is the quickest to adopt MP3's. Publishers must shudder as
they contemplate the distant but inevitable day when "electronic paper" does
the same to them, making downloaded files as convenient to read as ordinary
books, magazines and newspapers are today.

But while lawyers and business officials worry about technology's effects on
who will be paid, and how, for their creative efforts, the Internet's most
fascinating impact has been on those who have decided not to charge for
their work. I'm not referring to the open-source movement among software
designers, who by creating Linux and other systems want to establish a
low-cost alternative to the world of Microsoft-style commercial software. I
mean the emergence of two information sources that make us collectively
richer and exist only because of fairly recent changes in the Internet.

One, believe it or not, is the world of blogs. If you've been away, blogs
are those essentially personal Web pages where bloggers list their thoughts,
include pictures or sound clips, post links to other sites - and keep adding
new thoughts. If you haven't been away, I'll acknowledge that much of the
blog world inspires despair.
At the democratic extreme, blogs are a nightmare vision of a publishing
house's "slush pile'' come to life. At the elite end, the dozen or so
best-known sites, they are an intensified version of insider journalism. If
you don't get quite enough sass, attitude or instant conclusions from the
rest of the news media, you can always find more at the leading blogs. But
in between are thousands of sites that offer real-time eyewitness testimony
from people doing almost anything that some other person might find
interesting: training as a surgeon, looking for oil in Siberia, fighting in
Iraq. Blogs have only recently become a snap to set up and produce. There
are many tools for doing so, including Google's newly simplified version of

Blogs have also become easier to navigate, through the system known to
techies as R.S.S. I've sat through debates about what those letters
originally stood for; what they mean is that you can have new entries from
chosen blogs automatically delivered by e-mail soon after they appear. Some
people would rather skip R.S.S. and just cruise through favorite blogs
periodically. Others like the convenience of a regular R.S.S. feed: it's
like home delivery of mail instead of a post office box, but on a much
faster cycle. My current favorite among R.S.S. programs has an
ugly-even-for-software name: intraVnews. It presents blog entries, sorted by
topic, in my Outlook mailbox, and it is free.

If blogs represent the uncoordinated efforts of countless volunteer writers,
another information explosion shows the institutional might of the state.
Taxpayer money still is behind a surprising amount of crucial data: nearly
all weather observations and the supercomputer-based models that create
forecasts; most basic scientific research; most research into disease causes
and cures. In principle, this publicly financed knowledge has always been
the public's property, but until a few years ago there was no easy way to
get it from research centers to a wide audience. Thus various middlemen
arose - notably scientific journals, which did the expensive work of
printing and distributing research papers in return for steep subscription

With the coming of the Internet, these intermediaries were no longer
technically necessary - but, like the big music companies, they won't just
fade away. So, on several governmental fronts, a quiet but intense struggle
for survival is raging. Four years ago, as head of the National Institutes
of Health, Dr. Harold Varmus proposed the creation of PubMed Central as a
publicly accessible repository of medical research articles. Other "open
access" scientific databases have been created, but they are meeting
resistance from journals and authors who traditionally have held copyrights.

"It's in the authors' interest to provide open access, so their findings are
disseminated," said Peter Suber, author of the Sparc Open Access Newsletter.
"It's in the funders' interest, and the public's," but not in some of the
journals'. He urges, among other changes, that Congress require research
financed by the public to be openly available.

A SIMILAR battle involves, of all things, weather. In the pre-Internet era,
the National Weather Service agreed with its middlemen, the commercial
weather services, not to compete with them in certain products. Now, the
Internet makes the vast range of the weather service's data available to
anyone. In a recent study called "Fair Weather," the National Research
Council urged that the service seize this new technological opportunity so
that farmers, aviators, city officials and others affected by weather can
have free access to information their tax dollars have paid for. Commercial
companies, most notably AccuWeather, have been lobbying Congress for rules
that would force the National Weather Service to close or restrict some of
the excellent free sites it has already opened.

No matter how that battle turns out, the public will win the longer war. The
Internet's impact on the value of information may still be in flux, but its
long-term impact on middlemen is clear.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. E-mail:

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Received on Sun May 16 14:42:02 2004

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