Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Obvious Dilemma?

Blogging and print journalism seem to share a dilemma.

Obvious thought is not necessary; the audience can figure it out on their own. The only real barrier is inclination, which can be overcome simply by vaguely gesturing in a particular direction.
Non-obvious thought is automatically more useful, but deters audiences, because it is difficult both to convey and to understand.

I'm not interested in reading or writing about the obvious, and you're reading this blog; you're probably the same way. There don't seem to be enough of us to fully support blogs that pursue non-obvious ideas.

This can somewhat be overturned by posting long enough to put forth a full explanation. Beyond generating complaints, I wonder what effects long posts actually have on readers. Books work; is there some no-mans-land in the middle?

I wonder if a compromise would work. Perhaps consistent posts on the obvious peppered with eyeball busting treatises, at say 10-1. I suspect there's a lot of intersection between readers who want to be in the choir and readers who want an uphill read.

I think this dilemma has defined the idea of 'news.' One way to be both simple and useful is to supply small updates to existing bodies of knowledge. Unfortunately for the purposes of discourse, small and obvious amounts to insignificant. Thus, neither actionable ideas nor mind-changing ideas are economically viable to share. My issues with journalism may stem from journalism bloating beyond areas like weather, where facts that are insignificant as ideas can have significant physical consequences.

The part about 'existing knowledge' seems like it would drive expectations in the wrong way, too. The existing knowledge is necessary to make the update obvious, but having been raised on a diet of the obvious, can you deal properly with the non-obvious? Isn't your first instinct going to be to treat it as obvious but wrong? It was certainly my first instinct, and it would rather neatly explain around 3/4 of blog comments.

This dilemma has probably shaped the idea of 'science' as well. Specialists cannot be economically sustained by selling the ideas they develop; hence grants. Given the abysmal efficiency we're seeing grants achieve, I hope this one is a false dilemma. Since selling to a journal-equivalent is not sufficient, science should find some other voluntary exchange which does supply enough wealth. (Indeed, science did not begin in the age of grants, though measuring science by number of papers began then.)

On the other hand, sharing ideas is something humans seem to do for free. From time to time. Experiments remain expensive, but I have to ask; is there demand for science? If grants weren't cornering the market, would there be efforts to find voluntary alternatives, or would science die out, as grant-proponents (naturally) say?

More importantly, is there actually a market for ideas per se? Funding thinkers certainly puts more ideas out there, and conversely, perverted and neglected IP rights suppress the idea market. But exceeding the actual demand inherently implies waste. If ideas cannot be sold above the cost of production, there are more ideas than people want. Perhaps neglecting the market is actually the good choice. Perhaps the only reason there are so many ideas out there is that one day long ago, a scholar was frustrated that their preferred leisure was unprofitable, and then, through the devil's own luck, came into power.

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