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September 4, 2013

Putting a Price On Information

Posted by Simon Towers (View Profile | View All Posts) at 10:52 AM

Google Nexus 7 tutorial: customizing My Library [Source:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcaHQsrpDVQ]

A while ago, when the popular search engine Google crashed for five minutes, the press reported that the inability of people around the world to search for celebrity gossip and misbehaving professional athletes caused a "short-lived worldwide freak-out."

This is the same Google, of course, that has proposed building a modern-day digital library that would be the repository of all the world's information.

The way we think about what exactly is information and what's worth saving says a lot about us as well. In America, a number of federal agencies are filing proposals as to how the public should be able to access the fruits of research conducted by the government. These proposals focus on academic research of a scientific nature. A lot of what gets discovered and innovated in university laboratories comes in part from public grants. The idea is that if taxpayers are footing the bill for scientific works, then any of those taxpayers should ultimately be able to access the results. Whether a significant section of the population actually comprehends the information presented in a typical scientific research paper is not the question; it's the existence and open access to such information in a public forum that is at stake. What also needs to be addressed is who can get access to what. Presumably a biologist who would like to access breaking research at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta might be required, via his university or corporate laboratory, to pay a nominal amount for this to become a viable economic model. However, as a citizen, if he sought to access the same information from his residence, he must be able to - albeit in lesser detail - without having to pay for it.

When I speak of being a part of the Information Age, I assume everyone takes my definition to mean digital data. That is to say, the vast amount of research and other data generated from institutions both public and private. Now, who pays to store it?

I think, it's healthy to debate whether everyone should have to pay at least a small amount. True, the notion of paying anything to store and to access data might offend our modern sensibilities, especially when we can, for no charge, look up streaming video of William and Kate leaving the hospital with their new baby and play that video over and over again. But the sheer infrastructure costs of data storage and retrieval in the digital age are immense.

Contrast today's efforts with what municipalities did at the turn of the last century: creating public libraries. From the beginning of time until the late 19th century, a massive collection of books was the sign of a wealth and prestige. Most of the information found within those books never circulated beyond the walls of the grand houses in which they were stored. In the 19th century, that cities took it upon themselves to create vast, free lending libraries for the masses says a lot about how the people of that era valued the storage and sharing of information.

That recent, five-minute "panic" caused by Google's interruption points to the growing chasm between the information we value and the data we take for granted. "Google's down - everybody panic!" read one person's comment in the Twitter-verse. And then there's my personal favorite, from an office worker who learned that he couldn't access the popular search engine: "Can we go home, then?"

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