News, media & communications

Why we love numbers

Not everyone claims to like numbers (distant memories of maths classes) but it seems most of us are very reassured by them. The current obsession with rankings is just one indication that we need numbers to help us decide. Or as Jonah Lehrer said in How we decide, “numbers make intangibles tangible”. There is nothing quite like a Top Ten to help you decide what to choose.

The trouble with rankings, or any other numbers, is they hide more than they reveal. For example, people shopping for a car often ask about horsepower, though that makes little difference to their choice. Another problem is that numbers are chosen for comparison, but don’t always say much about the item being measured. For example, a schoolteacher may be very popular and effective with schoolchildren but not meet all the criteria of a statistical model. Sadly, authors are often judged on how many books they have sold, rather than the quality of their writing.

On the internet, it is common to think of pages in terms of “hits”, as if this says something about the page other than the fact it is popular. Many students do choose which academic papers to read according to how many hits they get. When something doesn’t get many hits, it is unfairly judged. People who don’t manage to get into the rankings may lose a sense of self worth even though they possess qualities that can’t be measured.

I think I’ll tweak a phrase, stolen from Mark Twain or Disraeli (or whoever most websites claim said it): there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and rankings.

Ref: The New York Times (US), 15 May 2011, 'Lost in numbers, obscuring our selves'. By A. Tugend.
Search words: numbers, ranking, quantify, Amazon, metrics.
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Twitter is for narcissists

Never before have so many people been able to reveal themselves to so many people in so many ways. According to Christine Rosen, an historian, technology encourages “constant demands to collect (friends and status), and to perform (market ourselves)”. But technology alone is not enough. Social commentators believe our culture is increasingly narcissistic, and young people are more self-absorbed, less empathic and hungrier for compliments than before.

As Ross Douthat notes in the New York Times, the problem with the internet is not lust, smut or infidelity – though there is plenty of that. The real problem is “desperate, adolescent narcissism”. Sites like Facebook and Twitter provide unprecedented opportunities to say: “look at me!” Every day, there are new stories about celebrities unwisely revealing their antics on Twitter. For some reason, this is important to the public. It may simply be schadenfreude - people are so glad it isn’t them in the frying pan.

People who Twitter heavily have to give enough to get, and to get enough to give, Virginia Heffernan notes, and they risk their reputations, careers and relationships. Unfortunately, taking risks online is less forbidding than taking risks in the real world. She suggests people who use Twitter really need to learn skills to use it well. It’s a powerful online game – with consequences. Companies know this too. That’s why they protect their data so carefully online. Perhaps more celebrities could do the same.

Ref: New York Times (US), 12 June 2011, The game of Twitter, by Virginia Heffernan. Also: The online looking glass, by Ross Douthat.
Search words: Twitter, reputation, social networking, hyperlinked.
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Rebirth of the essay

Here’s an interesting trend in a society of tweets, blogs and information overload: the rebirth of the essay. An essay is a sustained, personal view of big issues, such as race, or politics, where the writer offers urgent ideas that aren’t suited to a novel. Virginia Woolf wrote essays as “a relief from fiction and a means of making money”. Mark Tredinnick, Australian writer succinctly says: “Essays are a literature of fact”.

I think it’s interesting to ask, why now? It may simply be that a few progressive imprints have decided to publish collections of essays. But more likely, there is a growing demand, on the fringes, for writing that is more immediate, analytical, educated, sustained and literary. Good writers are being drowned out by bloggers and Twitters; business writing is full of bullet points and jargon. It’s a kind of writing terrorism. Essays are a return to the kind of writing you were encouraged to do at school, without the spelling mistakes.

Another possibility is that it’s hard to find the truth in the multiplicity of sources, all so fragmented and instantaneous. Essay writers can still respond quickly to world events, as Ian McEwan did to the terrorist attacks, but they choose their words more wisely and add a uniquely personal voice. Let Tredinnick have the last word on that: “Compulsive truth-tellers write essays; bad liars write essays”.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 2/3 April 2011, 'Collective thought', by C. Wilkinson.
Search words: Virginia Woolf, Notting Hill Editions, Essais, Michel de Montaigne, readers, ideas, Ian McEwan, Mark Tredinnick.
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Are libraries and bookshops doomed?

When was the last time you visited your local library? Most likely, it was ages ago, but you might defend yours passionately if the council wanted to close it down. This is happening in the UK and America for the main reason that councils have something better to do with their funds. Studies show most people go to libraries for “leisure reading and personal interest” - and they mostly borrow videos and use the internet. Defenders of the public library therefore need to focus on amenity, rather than necessity.

Given the recent collapse of Borders and Waterstones (and lower printing costs, online bookshops, and the e-book), it looks as if bookshops are following libraries. Perhaps they too are no longer necessary. But this overlooks other reasons why people go into bookshops – it’s the joy of browsing, unexpected reading tips and chance encounters. Maybe even the coffee. A bookshop is as much an environment as a store. Booksellers might need to focus more on the experience of buying books, as Daunt Books does, to entice fickle buyers offline.

Yet Robert McCrum says this is the golden age of reading and writing! He quotes the fact that 177,000 titles were published in the UK in 2010, compared to only 65,000 in 1990. Book festivals, clubs and reading groups are thriving (“middle England’s bingo”) and literacy rates have risen 6% between 1995 and 2008. Just as Caxton’s printing press revolutionised books, so digital technology is doing the same. The internet marvellously combines text, audio and video, and hyperlinks to create more engrossing “deep media”. E-books use deep media to create a more intense reading experience.

If you think this is all mildly depressing, you can now find TS Eliot’s The Waste Land as an app for iPad. It carries the text of his poem, video commentaries, photo illustrations, and voices reading it aloud (including Eliot himself). Talk about murder in the cathedral!

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 16/17 April 2011, 'Why libraries must perish', by C. Caldwell., Financial Times (UK), 27 May 2011, 'Hope in bookshops', editorial., New York Times (US), 11 June 2011, 'The Waste Land App', editorial., The Observer (UK), 8 May 2011, 'The web allows stories to be spun in new ways', by R. McCrum.
Search words: libraries, councils, necessity, amenity, bookshop, utilitarian, human, printing, e-book, costs, Borders, Waterstones, The Waste Land, TS Eliot, iPad, book festivals, literacy, text, audio, video, “deep media”, storytelling.
Trend tags: Digitalisation, virtualisation
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The future of e-books

In the US, Amazon sells 105 e-books for every 100 printed books. This is remarkable, given that it only took 2.5 years to achieve. In the UK, sales of Kindle e-books just overtook sales of hardbacks, which is perhaps less notable. There is something appealing about buying a hardback in a real, touchable bookshop.

It takes only seconds to download an e-book and e-readers can store hundreds of books. So holidaymakers have an enviable choice on their long plane trips (no more paltry airport novels). Publishers are now thinking of “enhancing” e-books with other media, for example, clips of tunes in a popular music book, or recreating books as apps for tablet computers. Jennifer Egan’s novel, A visit from the Goon Squad, is already available as an app, and allows you to switch between listening and reading, as well as reorder the chapters. It’s another kind of customisation.

E-books will not kill all physical books, but they will probably replace mainstream paperbacks at some point. This is likely to put more emphasis on printing high quality books and special editions. Now we wonder whether physical books will become the preserve of the rich again.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 26 May 2011, 'E-books: the next chapter', by S. Richmond.
Search words: Kindle, subscription, iPad, hardback, mobiles, Amazon, Constable & Robinson, Faber & Faber, immersive, poetry.
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