My post a couple of weeks ago about Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s soon-to-be-released anti-Google polemic sparked a discussion here about the cultural trade deficit and the linguistic diversity (or lack thereof) of digital collections. Around that time, Rüdiger Wischenbart, a German journalist/consultant, made some insightful observations on precisely this issue in an inaugural address to the 2006 International Conference on the Digitisation of Cultural Heritage in Salzburg. His discussion is framed provocatively in terms of information flow, painting a picture of a kind of fluid dynamics of global culture, in which volume and directionality are the key indicators of power.
First, he takes us on a quick tour of the print book trade, pointing out the various roadblocks and one-way streets that skew the global mind map. A cursory analysis reveals, not surprisingly, that the international publishing industry is locked in a one-way flow maximally favoring the West, and, moreover, that present digitization efforts, far from ushering in a utopia of cultural equality, are on track to replicate this.
…the market for knowledge is substantially controlled by the G7 nations, that is to say, the large economic powers (the USA, Canada, the larger European nations and Japan), while the rest of the world plays a subordinate role as purchaser.
Foreign language translation is the most obvious arena in which to observe the imbalance. We find that the translation of literature flows disproportionately downhill from Anglophone heights — the further from the peak, the harder it is for knowledge to climb out of its local niche. Wischenbart:
An already somewhat obsolete UNESCO statistic, one drawn from its World Culture Report of 2002, reckons that around one half of all translated books worldwide are based on English-language originals. And a recent assessment for France, which covers the year 2005, shows that 58 percent of all translations are from English originals. Traditionally, German and French originals account for an additional one quarter of the total. Yet only 3 percent of all translations, conversely, are from other languages into English.
…When it comes to book publishing, in short, the transfer of cultural knowledge consists of a network of one-way streets, detours, and barred routes.
…The central problem in this context is not the purported Americanization of knowledge or culture, but instead the vertical cascade of knowledge flows and cultural exports, characterized by a clear power hierarchy dominated by larger units in relation to smaller subordinated ones, as well as a scarcity of lateral connections.
Turning his attention to the digital landscape, Wischenbart sees the potential for “new forms of knowledge power,” but quickly sobers us up with a look at the way decentralized networks often still tend toward consolidation:
Previously, of course, large numbers of books have been accessible in large libraries, with older books imposing their contexts on each new release. The network of contents encompassing book knowledge is as old as the book itself. But direct access to the enormous and constantly growing abundance of information and contents via the new information and communication technologies shapes new knowledge landscapes and even allows new forms of knowledge power to emerge.
Theorists of networks like Albert-Laszlo Barabasi have demonstrated impressively how nodes of information do not form a balanced, level field. The more strongly they are linked, the more they tend to constitute just a few outstandingly prominent nodes where a substantial portion of the total information flow is bundled together. The result is the radical antithesis of visions of an egalitarian cyberspace.
He then trains his sights on the “long tail,” that egalitarian business meme propogated by Chris Anderson’s new book, which posits that the new information economy will be as kind, if not kinder, to small niche markets as to big blockbusters. Wischenbart is not so sure:
…there exists a massive problem in both the structure and economics of cultural linkage and transfer, in the cultural networks existing beyond the powerful nodes, beyond the high peaks of the bestseller lists. To be sure, the diversity found below the elongated, flattened curve does constitute, in the aggregate, approximately one half of the total market. But despite this, individual authors, niche publishing houses, translators and intermediaries are barely compensated for their services. Of course, these multifarious works are produced, and they are sought out and consumed by their respective publics. But the “long tail” fails to gain a foothold in the economy of cultural markets, only to become – as in the 18th century – the province of the amateur. Such is the danger when our attention is drawn exclusively to dominant productions, and away from the less surveyable domains of cultural and knowledge associations.
John Cassidy states it more tidily in the latest New Yorker:
There’s another blind spot in Anderson’s analysis. The long tail has meant that online commerce is being dominated by just a few businesses — mega-sites that can house those long tails. Even as Anderson speaks of plentitude and proliferation, you’ll notice that he keeps returning for his examples to a handful of sites — iTunes, eBay, Amazon, Netflix, MySpace. The successful long-tail aggregators can pretty much be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Many have lamented the shift in publishing toward mega-conglomerates, homogenization and an unfortunate infatuation with blockbusters. Many among the lamenters look to the Internet, and hopeful paradigms like the long tail, to shake things back into diversity. But are the publishing conglomerates of the 20th century simply being replaced by the new Internet hyper-nodes of the 21st? Does Google open up more “lateral connections” than Bertelsmann, or does it simply re-aggregate and propogate the existing inequities? Wischenbart suspects the latter, and cautions those like Jeanneney who would seek to compete in the same mode:
If, when breaking into the digital knowledge society, European initiatives (for instance regarding the digitalization of books) develop positions designed to counteract the hegemonic status of a small number of monopolistic protagonists, then it cannot possibly suffice to set a corresponding European pendant alongside existing “hyper nodes” such as Amazon and Google. We have seen this already quite clearly with reference to the publishing market: the fact that so many globally leading houses are solidly based in Europe does nothing to correct the prevailing disequilibrium between cultures.