It happened with music, and we’re not talking about subjective measures — the quality of music reproduction decreased measurably in order to make digital music’s capacity and portability possible. While digital recording created stunning fidelity, playback flagged. MP3 files were routinely downsampled to a fraction of their original fidelity, and sound systems — made smaller and lighter for the age of portability — became comparatively weak and tinny. Yet, few complained. The benefits of being able to carry around your entire music collection, make your own playlists, and buy only songs outweighed the degradation of quality for most. In fact, many of those adopting the new digital music technologies no longer know what they’re missing.
The standard has reset at a lower level.
It happened to books, and started long ago. The illuminated manuscript and early codex books were beautiful, exquisite works of art, replete with precious materials (gold, jewels, tints). The printing press brought the power of mass production to the form, and the manufactured book shed many of its artistic qualities — after a brief flirtation with recreating the fidelity of the manuscript. Now, with e-books, more elements are being shed. Nice printed books reflected their craft heritage with deckle-edge pages, fine typography, embossed covers, and metallic inks. E-books are mainly text files that eliminate thoughtful typography, distinctive physical design elements, and other intrinsic sources of aesthetic value.
Telephony is another area that seems to have decreased in quality as it has increased in availability. Compared to land lines, cell calls get dropped, words are mangled by interference, delays make crisp give-and-take difficult — yet we soldier on. Cell phones provide portability, peace of mind (our car breaks down, we can call someone), and convenience. Who cares if your friend’s voice isn’t as resonant and clear as it would be on a land line?
In all three cases, I doubt we’ll suddenly pull a u-turn and return to an era of fragile, non-portable music (vinyl records), expensive, wasteful books (paper), and tethered, low-functionality phones (landlines).
Information goods seem strangely susceptible to this trade-off between availability and quality. The wide availability of food has improved quality and variety simultaneously. I can almost hear the foodies groaning about fast food and the like, but that’s just one niche, and kind of proves my point — food can get worse, but doesn’t have to. The quality of fresh fruits, of affordable whole grains, of organics, and of clean water has all improved as availability has increased. In fact, the pressure on the worst foods in the market largely comes from the awareness supported by shared availability — that is, we can assume that people eating junk food have access to better foods, but just need to choose differently. Wal-Mart’s recent move to make better food available on a widespread basis seems to argue in favor of this direct correlation.
Automobiles are another case. Originally, these were idiosyncratic, unreliable, and low-quality. The fact that Scientific American said in 1909 “[t]hat the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced” provides a source of amusement.
Mass production has only made cars better, and robotomation has made them truly reliable and beautiful in this day and age. You can bank on your car lasting for 100,000 miles of driving with few problems. You can choose from many stylish, durable cars for under $20,000. Widespread availability has only made cars better.
So why does availability seem to drive down quality around information goods?
It’s been said that when information is widely used, it becomes more valuable. Yet, to be widely used, it seems information decreases in quality in some meaningful way — fidelity, reliability, beauty, relevance, or durability.
It’s not like the information about availability can’t improve. For instance, Google is not only better than Yahoo! or Bing or AltaVista, it’s a constantly improving source of information about information. The more information there is for Google to consume, the better it gets. Wikipedia is an improvable and improving reference work that has become the de facto encyclopedia of our age. Its model suggests it may hold sway for decades. It can address its deficiencies. It can improve.
In scientific publishing, increased capacity has led to a measurable decrease in aggregate quality of the corpus, if you accept that the proportion of papers making a meaningful contribution is a measure of quality — that is, if 100% papers were cited and read, every paper could be said to be of some quality. But as more papers flood out each year, a higher percentage go unread or uncited. This is not a sign of increasing quality, just increased capacity.
Clearly, the answer is that it’s easier to increase capacity than it is to increase quality. To return to the automobile, the Model T was produced in relatively large quantities, but quality didn’t increase at the same time. Quality came along much later. With Japanese autos coming into America in the 1970s, a volume of them arrived first, and their reputation for quality arrived later.
But improving the quality of information takes effort, expense, and discipline. Google and Wikipedia have expended a large amount of energy improving and maintaining quality. They’ve invested in systems, definitions, and rigor in a way I’m not sure we’re prepared to do. And when we increase capacity, we don’t engineer it well. For instance, PubMed Central is not a well-engineered content repository — self-healing, scaling quality with content, and so forth. It’s merely an exercise of storage capacity and accessibility, not quality enhancement.
We can’t imagine it will just “take care of itself.” Unless we improve the parameters of scientific information and invest in creating a system that is somehow better at improving as it grows, we’ll continue to drive down the quality of scientific information even as we increase its availability.
(Thanks to Bruce Rosenblum and Ann Michael for helpful conversations while this post was simmering.)