RADIO / I said silence, please: Robert Hanks succumbs to information overload

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The Independent Culture
There was a time when librarians provided a convenient shorthand for dullness and introspection - the locus classicus is Jilly Cooper's early novel Imogen, in which a job in a public library in North Yorkshire provides a stultifying contrast to the jet-setting Riviera milieu of tennis stars and international gangsters into which our heroine is whisked. As libraries enter the electronic age, though, all this is changing. Suddenly, librarians are on the cutting edge, their profession characterised by phrases suggestive of explosive danger and glamour. Where they used to find that their shelves were getting a bit crowded and perhaps they ought to think about having a book sale to clear off some of the older stock, now they suffer information overload. Where they used to browse through the catalogue and ring round a couple of librarian friends for information, now they go surfing the Internet - doesn't that conjure up images of lean, bronzed torsos pitted against the elements?

The Network (Radio 4, Tuesday), a new series on 'information', tried to grab a piece of this action, not completely successfully. Its main problem was that it was riddled with electronic tics, supposedly to 'enhance the key points of stories' - phrases were echoed and looped, highlighted by electronic distortion, underscored by synthesised music, played backwards and forwards. It goes without saying that this kind of pratting / gnittarp fo dnik siht taht / that this kind of pratting pratting pratting about can (irritating) swiftly become irritating, and sometimes a barrier to understanding. Barrier.

Given that the programme was largely concerned with how different ways of packaging information can affect the way that the information is perceived, it showed a limited understanding of how information can work on radio. You don't read a magazine page in a strictly linear way, so that highlighting words can influence the way that you mentally order a series of points. On radio, where an argument is unavoidably linear, artificial emphases can't create a new structure, just put lumps in the one that's already there, disturbing the natural cadences and rhythms of speech.

Underneath the computer- nerdy exterior, though, The Network offered some intriguing thoughts on how we use information, and the dangers of information overload - a problem since the Great Library of Alexandria, suggested one computer buff, apparently unaware that in that particular case the problem was solved by burning it down. The main worry was that the programme seemed to take it as axiomatic that information is now free - whereas half an hour earlier File on 4 (Radio 4, Tuesday) had offered an interesting illustration of the limitations. Its subject was possible malpractice in the world of receivership - the suggestion was that it is common for accountancy firms to show that businesses ought to be liquidated and then offer to do the liquidating, a highly profitable concern. Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to prove impropriety, since it's apparently usual for accountancy practices to conduct their own internal investigations and decide that their conduct has been entirely satisfactory.

'The Liquidators' had the fault common to investigative programmes - a tone of indiscriminate indignation that didn't always chime with the subject matter. The unintentionally entertaining opening section centred on a cheesemaker's complaint that the consultant who recommended liquidation was Australian and 'as far as I know had never sold a pound of cheese in his life'.

As it progressed, the programme dug up more serious allegations, including the suggestion, derived from a Scottish experiment, that when accountants know in advance that they won't be the liquidators they are 60 per cent less likely to recommend liquidation - information that devalues considerably the ethics of the market.

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