Great medium, shame about the message But I haven't got anything to say

The Internet seems to promise an amazing system of communication between individuals - but will there be high-quality information available in the 'digital soup'?

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Those who sell information for a living - and there are a surprising number and variety of us these days - gaze in wonder and fear at the "digital revolution" that is set to change our lives. Do we surf the Internet? Where is the on-ramp on to the information superhighway? Has our business got to grips with multimedia? Are we going interactive?

John Henry, the ballad-hero who cut America's railway tunnels by hammering steel through rock, knew the same feeling when his foreman announced that he was "gonna get me a steam-drill roun', gonna get that steam-drill out on the job, gonna whop that steel on down". But at least the death of his job was a certainty. We information people peer into a fog of possibilities. So much is suddenly feasible. What should we do? And if not, why not?

Here are some reassuring answers. But before giving them, I cannot assume that every reader understands what has created this tyranny of the possible. A good, concise explanation is a recently published book called Being Digital, written by a well-known American guru of the information revolution, Nicholas Negroponte. His book does for the digital age what Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time did for black holes - it leaves the reader bewildered, but at a far higher level.

Mr Negroponte must not mind if I resort to a bit of "data compression" to convey the gist of what he says: that trick is very much part of his world. Four things make up the essence of the digital revolution. First, all forms of information, whether sounds, written words or pictures, can now be transmitted as a stream of numbers - rather than via differing "analogues" or tricks of technical mimicry, such as wavy grooves on a record. They can thus be mixed as never before.

Second, each revealing stream of numbers can be digitally labelled with more of the same numbers ("the stream of numbers that follows is Wagner's Parsifal"). Third, they can be sifted through and unscrambled discriminatingly by a clever device - the computer - rather than followed slavishly by a dumb television or telex machine. Fourth, the number-carrying capacity of today's telephony is so prodigious that there is no constraint on the volume of information thus processed.

Taking those four points, Negroponte's lateral-thinking mind roves over the possibilities:

l We will move from "broadcasting" to "broadcatching". Instead of one Bush House or newspaper editor sending selected information to many individuals, each individual will pick what he/she wants from cables full of digital information.

l There will be no need for "transmission standards": the receiving computer will make sense of anything.

l Users will devise their own programmes, newspaper articles, briefings and so on, rather than have the form and content of these dictated by a presumptuous supplier.

l The computer will allow the user to interact immediately with the supplier.

l The time of transmission and the time of watching will be able to become completely unrelated. Vast, cheap computer-memories will make this possible.

l Copyright will prove as unenforceable as water is divisible.

l Governments will no longer have a handle on much of this.

All of us who sell information in ways we presume to master will quake at this vision. Suddenly the customer is to be a nightmare king. We are proud of our television programming - but the viewer will create his or her own schedules. We are proud of the logical flow of our prose - but the reader scorns this "serial delivery", preferring it in some other form, perhaps bullet points, as above. We think that we explain things adequately as we go along - but no, the reader wants "hypertext". He or she "clicks" the mouse on one of our words and expects immediately to find out more about it - with pictures and music, please.

We may consider today's leading article a model of armour-plated logic. But a maddening subscriber has come through on the Internet to discuss it. And if we resist any of this - if we will not "surf" - we will have a great future behind us.

And yet. And yet. One big presumption underlies this "gimme, gimme" view of the new information world. It is that there there will be an adequate supply of worthwhile information to be homebaked or hypertexted or discussed in this way.

lt is true that the technology of transmission - tinny and expensive telephone lines, an oligopoly of television channels, the expense of printing and distributing thick newspapers - has long set limits on what is conveyed. And it is true that we information people have become used to working within those constraints. But it would be unwise to imagine that, freed from them, we will gush torrents of good stuff.

From now on, the bottleneck in the information business will not be the medium, which will be limitless: it will be the shortage of a decent message.

It is a myth, for example, that journalists publish only a small fraction of what they know. In reality, the art of journalism lies in using facts as stepping-stones to cross great pools of ignorance without getting wet. And the art of editing lies in accepting only some of those stepping- stones and lining them up differently,

Mr Negroponte draws a contrasting analogy from Hollywood. He is sure that the average newspaper article discards masses of fine material, like a film editor, "on to the cutting room floor". His digital newspaper will, he thinks, allow a true enthusiast to see the unabridged version of any story. But in the world of journalism, that uncut version would probably bring in the libel lawyers. Selection and rejection are basic to its quality control.

Beyond mere quality, cutting things out and working within constraints are basic to art. Did Michelangelo discard too much when he delivered his Pieta? Perhaps he should have sold the marble chips on his cutting- room floor to patrons who could not get enough of him.

The great chef Bocuse, likewise, does a lot of selecting and rejecting before he presents his guests with a menu. He would apparently get short shrift for his presumption from multimedia man. Today's digital diner wants to be right there in the kitchen, customising his own entree in front of the hapless chef. He wants his media-kitchen to be Greek.

This is reductio ad absurdum. But there is currently more than a whiff of disenchantment in the air about the Internet. The spontaneous growth of a global network of computers linking some 100 million people has been formidable. But, as a medium for published information, its content is as much of a let-down as 100-channel television. Clifford Stoll, an American computer expert interviewed the other day by the New York Times, called it "an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness".

Stoll explained that the Internet is full of data, but that data is not the same as information. Information is data with a pedigree. And pedigree involves someone saying: "Hey, this is no good." So Mr Stoll is "tiptoeing off the networks" and hankering after handwritten letters "or, dare I say it, a newspaper article". Even Mr Negroponte, wearied by the flow of junk electronic information to his computer, insists that "brevity is the soul of e-mail" - a plea somewhat at odds with his vision of a world awash with data through which selective computers trawl.

If quality of supply is going to be one constraint on the rise of "broadcatching", the question of ownership of supply could well prove another. Ownership of output has been crucial to the rise of the world's agricultural and industrial economies. It is hard to believe that the information economy will thrive without it. Mr Negroponte's book explains how digital technology has made copyright law "a Gutenberg artefact". He is compelling in his reasoning, but does not dwell upon the consequences or the solution.

Already publishers worry how they can make money publishing on the Internet: it is like finding ways of charging the audiences at Speaker's Corner. The answer to the copyright of digital information will presumably lie in encryption (data that unlocks data). But nothing cracks digital codes like a computer. If no way can be found to enforce property rights on the digital common, mainly weeds will grow there. The worthwhile data will stick to more cumbersome forms of delivery.

So can we old-media types relax? Not if we read the Negroponte book. There is already too much of what he describes coming true - his insights into the death of attempts to standardise high-definition television are particularly compelling. But the current revolution in the medium that he describes will probably have less impact on the message than he envisages. That means that in planning their futures, established information businesses can afford to think harder about what is probable and do-able, and worry less about what is conceivable and fiendishly hard to get right.

What is probable is that the evolution of the information economy will follow that of the world of goods. Selection and shaping by editors and publishers will become more, not less, important in an era of infinite availability. So will pedigree and brand, for buyers will be more at sea in an ocean of choice than ever before. They will cling to the shared experience of Economist reading, just as they cling to the shared identity of BMW owning.

Technology will make new media products possible, but will not change or demote existing ones as much as one might expect. There will certainly be more "electronic impatience" on the part of the user - pressure to provide deeper analysis quicker - but the distinct charms of instant data, of a day's-worth of analysis, of a week's-worth of prescription, and of a month's-worth of mature reflection, will remain.

As for do-ability, the key point is not to put new wine into old bottles. The editor of a great newspaper can no more transfer his brand values into television, or lead his staff into interactive briefings worthy of his nightly editorials, than von Karajan could have taken the Berlin Philharmonic into pop music, or Fortnum & Mason make a fortune in TV shopping.

Publishers must certainly adapt their products to new ways of sending them, but they ought to be careful about extending their brands to radically new products that the digital world will make possible.

These new possibilities could well be better explored by a different team of people under a different label.

These thoughts are getting close to navel-gazing. The essence of Negroponte's digital world is, in his own words, that "the audience is me": not people of my social group, or in my business, or with my hobby, but me the individual with a bad hangover at the start of a tough day.

My Internet address follows me around wherever I roam. My computer sips the digital soup according to my mood and needs.

The essence of this riposte is that the digital world promises an amazing system of communication between individuals. However, whether the world's publishers and broadcasters will feel able or moved to pour digital soup of the right quality into the great tureen is much less certain.

The author is editorial director of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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