October 18, 2011

Latent Celebrity

In the past, society only had the resources to keep track of the currently pertinent. Books, magazines, and newspapers have limited space, and limited resources, so they cover only (what they consider to be) important things and important people.

Now, because so much of our lives are digital, we can store everything, and decide later what is important. Obscure action by obscure people can be stored, and later gain relevance when either the action or the person turns out to have been important, in retrospect. It's as though the data is just waiting for its importance to be revealed - a sort of latent celebrity.

For example, in 1991 a Master's student in Finland was working on a hobby operating system, and asked if anyone wanted to pitch in. The project eventually became Linux. Because the conversation was held on a digital mailing list, we can now study the founding of Linux using the original sources. That is really amazing.

Perhaps just as importantly, there is even a record of similar projects that failed. When publishing is a bottleneck, there is a bias toward focusing on the positive. By having full data on the winners and the losers, we can do much better at finding the source of the success (which might be just random).

There is a dark side to this "latent celebrity" - this storing of everything. As a silly example, digital search and transmission makes it easy for sites like failbook.com to publicize obscure idiocy for the world to see.

I believe that we are just beginning to explore the implications of a digital culture.

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