Archive for February, 2011

TechCrunch has a curious article arguing that Google search results are becoming increasingly useless as marketers and spammers game Google’s search algorithms to direct traffic to their sites for click-through revenue. The central paragraph is at the end:

Content creation is big business, and there are big players involved. For example, Associated Content, which produces 10,000 new articles per month, was purchased by Yahoo! for $100 million, in 2010. Demand Media has 8,000 writers who produce 180,000 new articles each month. It generated more than $200 million in revenue in 2009 and [is] planning an initial public offering valued at about $1.5 billion. This content is what ends up as the landfill in the garbage websites that you find all over the web. And these are the first links that show up in your Google search results.

Many of the referrers to this blog are spam sites offering, among other things, financial advice and tax preparation services. The number of deleted spam comments (lots of porn and gambling sites) is over 46,000, which outnumbers the 381 approved comments by a sizable factor.

It used to be politely agreed that the Internet is for, well, porn. It seems it’s also now for spam. Even Google is acknowledging this fact by offering an extension to its browser, Chrome, that filters out sites created by content farms. I had never heard this term before, but content farms apparently mine popular search queries and automatically create websites designed to attract the attention of web searchers using those terms.

These disreputable practices follow long-established use of bogus reviews on sites such as Amazon.com and Epinions.com pushing products of all kinds. Garbage content isn’t restricted to the Web. Newspapers and TV journalists have long used advertising disguised as news and video news releases. This is not merely blurring the lines; it’s outright misrepresentation. Navigating the information glut and evaluating political rhetoric (just as an example) has never been especially easy. Until trustworthy authority can be established or restored (don’t look to Wikipedia for this), a savvy reader/viewer would be well advised to regard nearly everything he or she sees with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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I’m reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, which describes how technologies we use affect brain/mind function. He surveys several inventions (the clock, the map, the printed book) that had significant effects on how we think. The history behind the book (pre-Gutenberg) surprised me. As Carr reports, the transition from cuneiform and other logographic forms to the phonetic alphabet and then to fluent, silent reading as we now do was protracted. He notes that prior to the Middle Ages, phonetic presentation of text was variable and had no spaces or punctuation. It was called scriptura continua, and the act of reading was an intensive cognitive process akin to deciphering the text, which was accordingly always done aloud, typically one reader to a plurality of listeners.

Reading aloud accounts for the presence of carrels and cloisters in ancient churches and libraries to accommodate the privacy needs of readers/listeners. In contrast, modern libraries have reading rooms — large open spaces filled with tables and chairs (see here and here) — precisely because silent reading requires no such privacy. Silent, personal reading was therefore a shift away from oral cultures that still used text as a tool within the wider context of orality. Later, the printing press and the economic effects of publishing gradually transformed oral culture to print culture by inaugurating the trend of private, personal knowledge newly and widely available to everyone.

Somewhat later in his book, Carr circles around to say that modern media, especially hypermedia, have returned us to the era of scriptura continua — not because everything is necessarily experienced aloud but because the variety of parallel channels and distractions returns media consumption to a deciphering process that blocks full comprehension. We’re often unaware of this fact, since most cognitive activity is subconscious, but the increased cognitive load may account for excitement we feel by being overstimulated. The irony is that learning occurs best when the mind is in a paradoxical state of relaxed concentration, which is what we experience during deep reading.

Many of us over the age of 30 or so, who remember a time before the Internet and its bounty, intuit that some part of our mental faculties has been lost. Regrettably, those below age 30 typically cannot know the loss of something they never developed. The world changes, of course, and we change with it; so in a sense, transitioning from one style of consciousness to another is inevitable. It’s happened numerous times before. If the failure of the electrical grid and the disappearance of all our pseudo-connectedness is as inevitable as doomers believe, I wonder what will happen when people are returned to the mental state where today’s constant stream of mostly irrelevant inputs is gone. Will they have the capacity for any depth of thought?