Sturgeon’s Law, Big Data and the New Literacy

“Ninety percent of everything is crap,” remarked science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon in the 1950s while defending science fiction against people who used the worst examples of the genre to fire their criticism toward the conclusion that ninety percent of science fiction writing is crap. Using those same standards, Sturgeon argued, ninety percent of film, literature, consumer goods, and pretty much everything else, is also crap. This is now known as Sturgeon’s Law.

Many would argue Sturgeon’s Law might be too conservative when applied to the Internet, which, as Clive Thompson explained in his book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, “has produced a foaming Niagara of writing. Consider these current rough estimates: Each day, we compose 154 billion e-mails, more than 500 million tweets on Twitter, and over 1 million blog posts and 1.3 million blog comments on WordPress alone. On Facebook, we write about 16 billion words per day. That’s just in the United States. Text messages are terse, but globally they’re our most frequent piece of writing: 12 billion per day. How much writing is that, precisely? Well, doing an extraordinarily crude back-of-the-napkin calculation, and sticking only to e-mail and utterances in social media, I calculate that we’re composing at least 3.6 trillion words daily, or the equivalent of 36 million books every day. The entire U.S. Library of Congress, by comparison, holds about 35 million books.”

Of course, while the Internet is producing a prodigious quantity of writing, the quality often leaves much to be desired. Sturgeon’s Law was true sixty years ago when the writing that the public had access to was provided in print by publishing houses, newspapers, and magazines, which were allegedly the gatekeepers of writing quality. Now that the Internet has opened the floodgates, the writing that the public has access to—and can contribute to—is like Sturgeon’s Law on steroids.

Big Data and the New Literacy

“Literacy,” Thompson explained, “has historically been focused on reading, not writing; consumption, not production.” The Internet, followed by the arguably more disruptive mobile web, ushered in the era of big data that has definitely answered the question posed by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake: “My consumers, are they not my producers?”

While we’re producing more writing than ever before, we’re also, Thompson wrote, “producing a Cambrian explosion in different media that we’re using to talk, and think, with each other—including images, video, and data visualization. The difference is, while we’re taught in school how to write and read, our traditional literacy focuses less on these new modes of publishing.”

One example of the new literacy is video editing, for which Thompson used one of my favorite shows. “Despite being putatively a comedy show, The Daily Show has become one of the most-respected news sources among young people in part because it’s so deeply literate in inspecting TV utterances. A common technique is catching politicians in acts of staggering hypocrisy—running a clip of something they said today, followed instantly by a clip from weeks or months earlier in which they said precisely the opposite. The show’s fluency developed in the 2000s as a result of technology advances: The producers built a nine-foot-tall rack of hard-disk recorders and monitors that pick up broadcasts on oodles of stations all day long, for later scrutiny.”

Another example of the new literacy is text-picture memes, which Thompson noted probably went mainstream thanks to “the LOLcat—a picture of a cute animal layered with intentionally illiterate text. As the joke spread across the globe, pundits soon began castigating the LOLcat as another example of the dumbing down of digital culture. But LOLcat-crafting skills can become quite powerful when applied to other areas—even as political speech. In China, visual creations have been crucial in subverting the government’s censorship regime. Why? The Chinese government requires local Internet firms to automatically scan for banned phrases and delete them. Pictures are less easily auto-censored than text.”

Thompson was clear to point out that the new literacy doesn’t replace the old, but instead expands it. Writing and reading text will still be required skills in the new literacy, but so will producing and consuming images, video, audio, and data in other forms. “The challenge,” Thompson argued, in addition to becoming literate in all forms, “will be figuring out when to use which form.”

Which is why although you can view Big Data as Big Crap per Sturgeon’s Law, you can also view Big Data as Big Literacy.

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