Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The tectonics of news

A recent article in the New York Times, “Start Writing the Eulogies for Encyclopedias”, reminded me of the time that my dad momentarily abandoned his prescient insistence that there was no place for the encyclopaedia in the modern home because it was so prone to date. That was in the early seventies, and in caving in to our demands he allowed in to our home the 28 or so volumes of the World Book Encyclopaedia.

The encyclopaedia salesman was my 5th grade teacher, a lanky gnarled silver-topped Australian gent called Mr Deards, who routinely boasted that he was a mere 16 due to a birthday on February 29th. I expect that the small fortune that my dad paid for the books went some way to supporting Mr Deards’ imminent retirement at the ripe old age of 17.

I can still remember the detail of the books, the gold page trim, the smell of the ink, and the way that the inner pages remained chilled even on a forty degree summer’s day – the balming character of knowledge.

The books served their purpose decently, forming, shall we say, a detailed template for numerous history, science and geography essays during my remaining school years.

The reason I raise this is that I was reminded again of my dad’s foresight this week - though the catalyst this time was the unfolding and deeply depressing news of the tragic events in China.

The first word of the earthquake was from Twitter, the next from my news stalwart, the BBC. There was nothing terribly remarkable in the way in which the information was received, nor that the story evolved and grew as news filtered through. What did feel remarkable, though, was the speed with which the information changed and morphed - and the precision with which it did so - progressively for the worst it must be said, as the toll expressed as casualties and estimates of the missing mounted.

At one point during the day, I refreshed the home page on the BBC, I think twice in relatively short succession, and the total leapt appallingly each time. So too did the contextual news - eyewitness accounts, photographs of damaged buildings, individual tragedies - many no doubt delivered by citizen journalists.

Now I know that the encyclopaedia is, or rather was, a compendium of news from a distance, given time for scholars and editors to apply perspective and wider social an cultural interpretation, but I was suddenly struck by how antiquated the concept felt – even, for that matter, the shiny Encarta discs that I bought for my children as recently as five or six years ago.

In its place we have the factual termite mound that is Wikipedia (which, it must be said, handles its reference to its ancestors with detached, if somewhat barbed, decorum - “the opinions and world views of a particular generation can be observed in the encyclopedic writing of the time. For these reasons, old encyclopedias are a useful source of historical information, especially for a record of changes in science and technology.”- like a polite child passing judgement on its parent).

The reality today is that information will no longer accept stasis, news – even history - will never be pinned down. Any position at any time is merely a snapshot, prone to events and shifts in perception in moments, rather than weeks, months or years.

For communicators it is worth reflecting on this massive change - especially in the wake of blogging, social networking, twittering and more - and remembering that in cyberspace, the ink never dries and it constantly smudges. The days of Mr Deards and World Book belong to the fossil record.

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