#995. The search for quality content has come full circle

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Apr 27

At uni, we (computer science and robotics students) were given fantastic Spark workstations made by Sun. I couldn’t believe my luck, or understand where the money came from. But they ran Unix and students in other departments were handed much less interesting and powerful computers that ran the first version of window-based operating systems. And that made them cocky. Little did they know. Easy don’t make good.

 
Cold stone, warm heart
 

At about the same moment, my wife was studying medicine in Montpellier, arguably the best med school in France, at least at the time. When she needed a research paper or a rare book, she had to walk into a huge vaulted room with high ceilings and creaking wooden floors, packed with filing cabinets containing little carboard cards, each describing a publication of some sort. She’d take up to three out, handed them to a clerk not dissimilar to those at Gringott’s and either walked out with her precious information supports or had them on order, having to wait up to three months for whatever treasure lied hidden behind the promising titles.

The curation and indexing that went on behind those stone walls and creaking floors, as in multitudes of libraries around the world, were some of the most valuable work being done anywhere in the world. Those were the unsung heroes of the times.

Nowadays, this feels quaint and of another age. But is it?

 
Behind revolving doors
 

Today, my wife (like many French doctors) mentors young professional that she later – sometimes – welcomes into her practice in the hope that she might one day be allowed to retire 😉 Those roughly 30 year old doctors can’t remember a time where information wasn’t freely accessible on the web.

Few realise the astonishing luxury that is. If they did, they probably wouldn’t allow (or contribute to) the absolute pollution of the web we are witnessing. Yet, not all of the accessible information is good quality. Only a few days ago, an official protest from ICML (a highly rated machine learning conference and publication) denounced how utterly dismal recently subimtted articles have been. Easy access don’t make good content.

It was Paul’s recent lament about online Photoshop tutorials that set this train of thoughts into motion. I don’t think anyone on the planet was as maddly in love with the Internet as I was a few years ago. But it’s really hard to feel as enamored today. Forgetting the cesspool of antisocial media, when was the last time you opened a new website and didn’t have to battle through a cookie settings pop-up, a newsletter pop-up, adverts, affiliate crap and other parasitic nonesense before getting to the actual content, that turned out to be yet another 10 reasons to use the XXXX rule / get rich without effort / get great at anything without effort / discover those 15 amazing beaches no one else know about … Ugh, I mean, have some dignity.

 
Red flag
 

I find it physically painful that so many people are so willing to damage the once hallowed land of the Internet (and their own lives) to make the pityful few bucks those practises actually generate (well, maybe not the affiliate links. Well done, they harm no one, I guess)

Of course, the usual suspect platforms orchestrated this decline, with the now decades-old plan of: free traffic, no, wait, very inexpensive traffic, no, wait, mildly expensive traffic, no, wait, expensive traffic, no, wait, now you’re a slave for life and I own you and your business. May they sleep in peace on their superyacths, knowing they all but destroyed the most powerful educational tool in the history of humanity.

But, wait! Maybe, it’s just me over reacting … Or ranting dumb, missing the very point all of this is so obviously making 🙂

 
Free content
 

Let’s recap.

It used to be that very little knowledge got shared. Initially, orally.

Then, through books that had to be hand-copied and hand-illustrated over months, in order to spread and disseminate their precious content. There’s a reason why those books were so precious. There’s a reason why only the most profound ideas of the time were put to paper. Even then, though, the signal to noise ratio was not that great as there was very little written signal and quite a lot of folklore gibberish.

Blame Guthenberg for inventing spam 😉 By making books easier to reproduce, he lowered the barrier to entry and (maybe?) allowed some less wonderful minds to make their way to cellulose immortality. But he also, and more certainly, allowed precious information to circulate more widely and more affordably. So, the signal to noise ratio rose drastically, while the price dropped. All hail Gutthy.

 
New life
 

And, through many centuries of developpment of this basic principle that more people can have their ideas published and spread, we come to the Internet. Brainchild of a generous genious, messed up by Silicon Valley twats in search of superfulous money. What else is new?

My comment to Paul’s aforementioned post states “There are great islands of knowledge in this ocean of low quality content, but they are getting no love from the search engines and the ocean keeps expanding, making those islands more difficult to find every passing day.” Does that make the web a bad place? Nooooo!

Yes, worthwhile islands of ideas-getting-shared-and-debated or proven-knowledge-getting-shared are constantly being pushed away by the vastness of the shallow, click-baity, ocean of those who see a future in slaving for platforms for a pittance and micro celebrity status.

But the islands are still there.

 
Glowing captive
 

Yes, comments and ratings, those Nobel-prize-worthy ideas designed to strengthen trust and automate the emergence of quality, have been perverted and defiled by the usual suspects and their legions of minion slaves.

Yes, those oceans have destroyed fortresses of quality journalism and replaced them with fake news engines.

Yes, all of this has allowed a new generation of populist monsters to climb to the top of all leadership ladders, break up continents and, more recently, kill tens of thousands of those they swore to protect.

But the islands are still there.

 
Eureka
 

Not only are they still there, but they are more numerous and towering than ever before! They are just harder to find because there’s no money to be made for the platforms by sending traffic their way.

Now, then, in spite of the exponential rise of knowledge, I’m not certain we are still seeing a rise in signal-to-noise ratio. Not that the noise is rising even faster than knowledge. But knowledge isn’t being supported or spread. The islands are there, more numerous than ever but possibly more deserted too. Conspiracy and flat-earthing get more clicks than fact and reasoning.

The string may have broken when cheaper (content) became free, when informative value of content was lost as a metric in favour of monetizablility of trafic, when the effect killed its cause.

   

When Chris Sanderson wrote “The Long Tail”, I deseperately wanted to believe in his theory: the Internet being virtually unlimited in its customer base anybody good at anything would be able to live off it, via the Internet. Myriads of tiny niches would become sustainable. Customers with very specific needs and tastes being served by providers with very specific skills. A proliferation of quality and variety. A lovely idea. Except for two major mistakes in evaluation :

(1) Platforms syphoning every last penny out of everything possible made climbing the bottom rungs of a business ladder really difficult. Starting off became nigh on without bending a knee to a platform.

(2) Our collective willingness to buy/read/consume really bad stuff so long as it was dirt cheap or free. Kids are willing to get into a lifetime of debt to study stuff that has evolved very little since the industrial revolution, they’ll pay 6 €/£/$ a day for frothy coffee, but won’t pay a cent for good content because – for some well marketed reason – content is supposed to be free. People will spend fortunes on status symbol cars but will eat really bad food that will inveitably make them ill, because it’s cheap. Content is no longer appreciated for its nutritional value but as advertising ore. Human ore.

Quality food/content (mental food) requires *a lot* of work and deserves *a lot* of recognition. It’s not getting either. And we are hurting oursleves in this.

 
Leap
 

And here’s what I’m getting at:

Just like we needed those expert curators and indexers 3 decades ago, we need expert curators and indexers today. We need maps to those quality islands so as not to be lost in the toxic oceans in between. We need to help those islands thrive and be found. Only there aint no librarians for online content.

The job used to be performed by Google for content discovery (interestingly, Google rose to fame by disrupting actual online structured libraries and inventing unstructured search) and social media (for content sharing). All became power and money hungry and broke the mould. And we sang along. The fact that someone as expert and used to the web as Paul stuggles to find a decent tutorial for a very specific task just highlights how much we have hurt ourselves by letting all of this happen, for convenience and a few bucks.

 
I see a red door (well, almost)
 

We can all help. The good news with human beings is that thinkers will always think. Experimenters will always experiment. Teachers will always teach. It’s never too late to help their work reach others.

What if we became the expert curators and indexers the web so desperately needs? What’s hard for one person isn’t hard for a well organised group.

We don’t need a map to millions of islands. Just a handful. We don’t need to support the work of a million authors and websites. Just a handful.

We’re stuck at home, we have time, we have expertise. Who wants to start a map and a fund?

 
It’s a trap (no, it’s not)
 

You can sort out the fund for yourself. All websites have stuff to sell or donate buttons. As for the map, I’m happy to host a page dedicated to great resources. We need a better way to access knowledge.

How do we chose what goes on there? How do we define real quality?

Well, thankfully, that’s really easy!

 
I am a rock, I am an Island
 

Anything that has transformed you for the better is quality stuff. MOOCs are all the rage but their success rate is abysmal. As in 1%. MOOCs are cool and all but not transformative. If it’s not making a distinct change in the way you think or perform tasks, it’s not quality. I’m not talking new trick that helps you save a quarter second on your PP, makes those colours pop or tests MTF in a garage. I’m talking major AHA permanent CHANGE. I’m not talking slap-on technique. I’m talking mental model and skill set.

For a photographer, my suggestion for the best quality content you can find at any price, anywhere in the world, is Ansel Adam’s trilogy The Camera, The Negative, The Print. This is a foundation you can build on for a lifetime. I’ve yet to find any book/blog/video series/forum/online course that comes even remotely close. That’s my first contribution to the map. Not really a website, but I’ll provide websites too, if we go through wit this. And, hey, let’s expand this to more than photography. To arts and to worldview.

It’s time for a new renaissance and we can be a part of that. Let’s build that thing. Who’s in? Who’s next?

 

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  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    I too have those three books by Adams, as well as Weston’s ‘The Day Books’; Nancy Newhall’s ‘From Adams to Stieglitz’, Paul Strand’ ‘Time in New England’ and ‘Tir A’Mhurian’ , Helen Levitt’s ‘Mexico City’ as well as other books, such as Ossian Ward’s ‘Look Again’ – all of which help contribute to building my ‘understanding’. I hope I’ve understood and contributed to this ‘map’

    • Sean says:

      I might add to my previous comment: nearly all of my books are not seen as ‘how to do’ cook books, but as monographs of various photographers works, and, or, books that contain various works accompanied with a discussion. By way of example, there’s ‘In Our Time’ (The world as seen by Magnum photographers), and ‘Bystander’ (A History of Street Photography), and ‘America’ by Walker Evans, and Guimond’s ‘American Photography in the American Dream’, ‘Robert Capa Photographs’ by Cornell cape and Richard Whelan, and ‘In Color’ by Ansel Adams. In addition, there are are other books on the works of Leiter, Callahan, Irwin and Picker.

  • Wow! I’m just impressed that I’ve found other humans who own those books! Chalk one up for the internet!
    Pascal, I recall a radio doc several years ago that argued indexing and librarianship were much more powerful innovations than the printing press. Makes sense to me.
    Troubling that if something can’t be located online and viewed at no cost, it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Most students of all ages seem to totally rely on Google for research and never look beyond it. Not a positive development.
    If a suitable candidate for inclusion in the DS resource museum/index comes to mind I’ll happily add it.

  • John W says:

    Pascal – You can add this to the index:

    The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes
    https://www.amazon.com/Practice-Contemplative-Photography-Seeing-World/dp/1590307798/ref=sr_1_2?crid=J3OP5F06225G&dchild=1&keywords=miksang+photography&qid=1588010506&sprefix=Miksang%2Caps%2C200&sr=8-2

    Forget the rule and restriction – handheld, available light, colour only.

    Look at this as a photographic tool, not a “philosophy”. Concentrate on the exercises and adapt the principles to your own photographic practice. It teaches you how to make the sort between what’s visually important to YOU and sharpens your ability to see and photograph that intuitively from the soul. I took the full series of courses between 2004-6 with Michael who was trained by the person who developed the concept and principles of Miksang. It completely changed my photography. It’s also where I got the idea for Visual Hiku.

    QUESTION: Does anyone know where I can find a good tutorial on Layers? I have yet to find one that makes any sense or is presented from the point of view “You know NOTHING and I will teach you everything”. The presentation always seems to be from the point of view that you know as much as they do … … which I clearly don’t or I would be watching their tutorial.

    • Sean says:

      Hi John,
      Theres this book ‘Welcome to OZ’ (Cinematic Approach to Digital Still Photography with Photoshop) by Vincent Versace. 2011. New Riders Publisher.
      ISBN 13: 978-0-321-71476-3; ISBN 10: 0-321-71476-8.
      I don’t use Photoshop. I bought the book because I wanted a reference to the potentials that exist when crafting a final image, when using digital image file. Having said that, the workflow instructions provide, step-by-step, instructions based on layers – the book holds your hand, in other words. Just note the publication date is 2011. I’m not sure of relevancy today to todays version of Photoshop, for if there’s an updated edition to accomodate any change.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      “Layers” seems to vary from one post processing program to the next, John. What’s your favourite post processing program? – let me know and I’ll see what I can find.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      John,

      Lynda.com offers good tutorials. It’s a subscription-based platform, but you have a one-month free trial, enough to learn the basics.

      https://www.lynda.com/Photoshop-tutorials/Welcome/743189/763673-4.html

      Beyond that, I recommend the PixImperfect YouTube channel. A lot of practical PS information by Unmesh Dinda, a terrific teacher with great humor:

      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMrvLMUITAImCHMOhX88PYQ

      Have fun 🙂

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    We’ve always had “stupid”. Speed up the process, and “stupid” is simply easier to notice.

    And the beacons of “brains”, too – but they aren’t as likely to be self-promotional. They’re less visible, a lot of them – because they’re too interested in “doing” and often they are totally disinterested in “display”.

    I love your suggestion that “the wheel hath come full circle”. Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, right? I apparently completely misunderstood the whole point of the mad scene on the moor. But the circle bit – that’s fun. What do we mean when we say it today? Shakespeare’s little turn of a phrase is all over the place today. We hear it in every day conversation just about everywhere. Here’s a comment on the original version:

    “At some point we’ve got to decide: is it okay to be a jerk when your dad is constantly mean to you, or do you have to take responsibility of your own actions? For Edmund, things come full circle, but does that happen to everyone? Do we all have to pay for what we’ve done to others?”

    Love your allusion to librarians. Being a librarian used to be one of the most demanding, most intellectual, occupations on the planet. An elite task force. Loved and revered by one and all. Depended upon. How have search engines helped? The same way AI does – by removing the human component and automating process. Sometimes this is “better” – sometimes it is “worse”.

    Old fashioned university professors detest and deplore it. They get papers from 20 different students, with 20 identical answers. Did they all cheat? – no – that was the old fashioned path to identical answers. These days everything is automated. Do they deserve a pass? – NO – because the whole point of switching from school to university was that instead of being taught, you had to start to think. And that doesn’t include getting search engines to do it for you!

    Cellphones – AI – here’s your “photograph”. You don’t have to do anything further – someone in Silicon Valley (or China) has already done it all for you. Post-processing? – are you deaf, or just plain nuts? – we just told you, it’s already all been done for you. Just post it on Instagram. Or Facebook. Or Twitter. The world will adore you. I won’t. But I don’t count. Mavericks and loners are “out”. Passé. Capisce?

    I’ll stick with what I’m good at. Or what I think is good. Other people can follow fashion. I’ll just follow my nose, follow my own path. I can’t remember ever doing what I was told. It’s too late for me to start learning how to, now.

    By the way, I love the last two paragraphs of your post, Pascal. It reads just like a description of “photography”. Why do people think you’re nuts, if you want to print your own photos, yourself? Does anyone have any figures on (1) how many cameras there are, out there? VS (2) how many “photographers” actually own a half decent printer? ROTFLMHAO 🙂

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    Pascal,

    The Internet in the 1990s was indeed an exciting and promising adventure. It didn’t take long, though, for this new virtual world to follow suit with the physical one and invite pollutions of all sorts – greed, profiteering, exploitation, swindling, manipulation, disinformation, and so on…

    I agree with you that there are still many islands of knowledge, constructive debate, shared ideas. They become, however, increasingly difficult to find. We need pointers, references, directions to navigate this big mess. Your idea of using DS to build a resource of books, sites, articles is excellent. For subjects related to photography and beyond (environmental, societal, for ex.).

    I taught myself photography with books. Some educational ones, like the AA volumes you mentioned, but mostly by looking at the work of artists that inspired me – Sally Mann, James Fee, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Michael Kenna, Elger Esser, Axel Huette, Richard Misrach, Vincent Munier, among others. I grab a different book every day from my library and immerse myself in it for a long time, a sort of ritual 🙂

    I also like to explore new avenues that the digital era has made possible. I can recommend the work of Bonnie Lhotka, a photographer, painter and mixed-media artist who has dedicated her carrier to establishing new methods for digital printing, at the frontier of alternative photography and traditional printmaking. Her books – “Digital Alchemy”, Hacking the Digital Print”, “The Last Layer” – contain detailed tutorials and illustrate their artistic possibilities. She is also making all the reagents available for these approaches.

    Stay safe all !

  • pascaljappy says:

    Thanks to everyone for the contributions. They are duly noted and will appear in a dedicated page.

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