When Information Could Make the Nerd a King
The sale of the Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has set off an avalanche of comment about the relative virtues and vices of new media versus old, about billionaire patrons using newspapers to pursue their own interests, and of course about the very future of the institution of journalism itself.
For me, there is a sad valedictory ring to the proposition that the market values the venerable Washington Post at a bit more than 15 percent of the value it places on the Washington Redskins. There is no progress unless the old order passeth, and I am not about to pick a fight with the forces of creative destruction. Before the curtain comes down, however, let me tell you a story of one way in which the old media could be so much more fun and rewarding than the new. I have in mind what Roger Angell of the New Yorker calls “catch-up cryptography.”
Catch-up cryptography has nothing to do with the National Security Agency or the Black Hat conference. The phrase is Angell’s way of describing a delightfully frustrating exercise that every sports fan of a certain age will remember. Back when there was no Internet and no ESPN, it was often difficult to find out all the sports scores. Growing up in Washington, I was baseball mad. I would rise early, bring in the Post from the front porch, and turn immediately to the sports pages to check the standings. The problem was, the paper went to bed before the late games finished. Every morning there would be a list of scores, and then, near the bottom, something like this: PITTSBURGH AT LOS ANGELES, LATE. No result. How to find out?
I could tune the radio to the news station, and wait for the sports on the quarter-hour, but all I would learn was who won. The afternoon paper scarcely carried more: What was unknown in the morning was old news by the middle of the day. What if I wanted to know the crucial defensive play? The winning pitcher? Whether a hitting streak had continued? Sometimes, when there was space, the next day’s paper would carry more detail. Usually it wouldn’t. At times it would take days -- weeks! -- to learn everything that had happened. And there would be games the details of which I would never learn.
Nowadays the notion seems absurd, but consider life in a world where everyone suffers from the same information disadvantage. What reputational capital you could amass if you were the kid who always knew whether the winning run in that late game had come in on a wild pitch or an opposite-field double! By investing more time and effort than his classmates in something that had nothing whatever to do with grades or test scores, a boy who was never going to be the best student or the best athlete could nevertheless gain a certain cachet.
Those days are long gone, a relic of an era when the latest news was relatively expensive to obtain. The kid I describe wasn’t just a creature of the old media; in a sense that catch-up cryptographer was the old media. He dug up facts that others wanted, and the market paid him for his efforts (albeit in reputational capital). And there was no need for others to duplicate his efforts, because they knew they could get the details from him. Thus they turned their talents to other pursuits. That’s how the market worked in a world that was information poor.
Now the world is information rich. The new media proceed largely according to the Austrian economist Josef Falkinger’s model in which competitors in a market saturated with information fight for the attention of the consumer by sending signals of considerable intensity.
In the small, ponder the ads that often display before YouTube videos, with the promise that you can shut them off after 5 seconds. Those 5 seconds, then, are all the advertiser has to entice you to keep watching. It therefore matters a great deal which algorithm is used to select advertising calculated to grab your attention.
In the large, the competition for attention explains everything from why politics has become so consistently nasty to why every film out of Hollywood seems to be either a sequel to a hit or based on a graphic novel. Time spent in reflection, for all of its value, is very much a habit of the information poor.
Actually, the economist Herbert Stein predicted all of this in an important 1971 paper, pieces of which are often quoted out of context. His topic was the urgent need to reinvent organizations to function in a world of inexpensive information. Historically, he pointed out, a company could realize economies of scale by digging up information and reselling it. Stein saw that those days were already waning.
“In an information-rich world,” he wrote, “most of the cost of information is the cost incurred by the recipient.” He described a thought experiment in which he asked his friends to consider the real costs of reading the New York Times or the Washington Post -- not merely the price of subscription, but “the reading costs” (basically, the opportunity cost). He describes his friends as alarmed when they realized the resources they were investing in reading their daily newspapers. His point was that once we calculated the actual cost of consuming an entire day’s news, we might decide to consume less of it. If you read methodically, the next bit of news would cost the same as the last, but the marginal benefit would probably grow smaller as you worked your way through the newspaper.
Stein was writing before the Internet. But he predicted, accurately, the shift away from the value of knowing things toward the value of being able to access things. In that sense he foresaw the demise of the nerd who was popular because he knew the late baseball scores, a casualty of the declining cost of informing the self.
My eulogy should not be taken as an attack on the new media. I quite recognize that the editorial gatekeepers of the past could just as easily function as partisan censors, and that an information-rich environment allows each of us to roam delightedly and at will across the fertile fields of human knowledge. But there were virtues in the old way, too, and some of us reveled in them.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)