Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Public Value and the Public Trust

Matt Asay's latest Open Road column for CNET News is entitled "Google, the great destroyer of value?" His point of departure is, for better or worse, The Wall Street Journal:

In a recent series entitled "The Future of Newspapers," Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson made some provocative (but insightful) comments about the Web's effect on journalism and the newspaper business.

One comment in particular stands out:

Google devalues everything it touches. Google is great for Google, but it's terrible for content providers, because it divides that content quantitatively rather than qualitatively. And if you are going to get people to pay for content, you have to encourage them to make qualitative decisions about that content.

Google Page Rank supposedly makes qualitative distinctions between content by measuring quantitative links to content, but in reality it doesn't work that way--not enough of the time, anyway.

This is interesting as far as it goes; but it is unclear that Asay took the nature of his source into account, which would have been a cardinal sin back in the days when print journalism still ruled. One problem with a publication like The Wall Street Journal is that it tends to focus entirely on the newspaper as a provider of content (which can, of course, be monetized), thus sacrificing the old-fashioned idea of the newspaper as a public trust. How, then, are we to interpret these remarks with respect to Google? We must begin with the premise that Google is not particularly interested in this matter of the public trust, and I have gone so far as to suggest that folks like Eric Schmidt neither know nor care about just what that concept is. Nevertheless, Google has been instrumental in eroding this aspect of newspaper publication, just as they have eroded the role of health care as another public trust. Now I am the first to admit that this concept of public trust had its origins in the nineteenth century. Indeed, it predates the concept of socialism (not to mention those who immediately raise red flags at the very hint of that concept). However, I find it interesting that, in the areas of both journalism and health care, it managed to survive many of the modernist innovations of the twentieth century, having a firm hold on our collective consciousness until Google rooted itself in our way of life. I do not expect that the sorts of responsibilities of public trust will return in my lifetime, but I fear that we shall be the worse for that lack.

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