RhetNetFebruary 1995

Attention, context, and the relocation of the editing function

Eric Crump

A number of commentators have observed that in the information age, with information such an abundant commodity, attention may be the key to intellectual and economic worth. In The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, Richard Lanham notes:

     In a society based on information, the chief scarce commodity 
     would presumably be information, not goods. But we are drowning 
     in information, not suffering a dearth of it. Dealing with this
     superabundant flow is sometimes compared to drinking from a 
     firehose. In such a society, the scarcest commodity turns out 
     to be not information but the human attention needed to cope 
     with it. Intelligenda longa, vita brevis should be the motto 
     of the information age--life is short, but long indeed the 
     list of things to be known in it. (117)

As more and more people get on the net (especially academics with their in-grained print acculturation that values efficiency and focus over exploratory copiousness), there are more and more cries of panic and anger as people feel swept away by the flood of words and images they encounter. It comes up on many of the open discussion mailing lists I'm on. It comes up during realtime converesations on MUDs. It has come up in discussions about the editorial function as configured in RhetNet. "Too much!" people say. "Too much noise! Too much signal! Too much mail!" I can almost see them sinking beneath their desks, engulfed by the shimmering intangible images scrolling past fast on their PC display monitors.

One reaction to their plight is scorn. Those folks with high infoglut tolerance suggest that the newbies get used to it or go back to reading their tame little books. Not a very productive approach.

A better adaptive strategy would be to provide contextualizing spaces on the net where some of the flood is siphoned off into pools or backwaters where it can be handled, reflected upon, contributed to, at a somewhat less frenetic pace. These spaces, and the process of directing information to them, is the editing function on the net. It's the opposite, in some respects, from print editing. To continue with the flood metaphor, print editors operate like the corps of engineers. They build structures (locks, dams, etc.) that control the flow. They edit from the spigot, in a sense. Cyberjournal editing does the opposite. It doesn't contain the flow, it manages a view of the flow, extracting information based on a particular perspective or context, based on a particular interest.

Paul Saffo makes a point similar to this and similar to Lanham's in the March, 1994, issue of Wired:

     It's not content but context that will matter most a decade or so 
     from now. The scarce resouce will not be stuff, but point of 
     view. [...] "Point of view" is the quintessentially human 
     solution to information overload, an intuitive process of 
     reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum. 
     Point of view is what successful media have trafficked in for 
     centuries. Books are merely the congealed poitnof view of their 
     authors [and, I would add, their editors] ... ("It's the Context, 
     Stupid" 74-75)

Cyberediting is editing after the fact, after the public utterance, not before. RhetNet is an effort to relocate the editing function and see if the theory bears out.

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eric's note