The rapid growth of digital media over the last two decades has raised a question whether legacy media can survive in a fully digitised environment. Is it right to classify digital media a predator and legacy media a prey? How will the latter, with its finite content, compete with the infinite possibilities offered by the digital platforms? Is the absence of limits a boon or a curse?
The latest tranche of reports in The Hindu, which is a part of the investigative collaboration with WikiLeaks, titled “The Kissinger Cables,” gives us a fair idea of the limits and the possibilities of the two forms, and also the areas where mutual strengths can be harnessed and two formats can complement each other, rather than compete.
The sheer volume of the “Kissinger Cables” is mind-blowing: more than 1.7 million U.S. diplomatic records, for the period 1973 to 1976, relate to a period when Henry Kissinger was the U.S. Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford Administrations. It is nearly impossible to glean through this mountain of information and form an intelligent opinion of what happened during those tumultuous years.
This is where the partnership between the legacy media and the digital platform comes to play a crucial role of disaggregating the data into meaningful information that leads to a better understanding of the United States of America’s geopolitics and diplomacy. WikiLeaks and some of the important legacy news organisations across the world have entered into strategic partnerships to cull out information relating to specific countries or region and provide a context to make sense of these diplomatic exchanges. The Hindu’s reportage deals with cables related to India.
One of the earliest scholars to look at this problem of plenty posed by the digital world was Umberto Eco. In 1995, when the volume of content on the Internet was just three per cent of its present size and search engines were less powerful, the Italian master drew our attention to information overload. Sharing the difficulty he faced on preparing for a paper on Thomas Aquinas using an Internet based hypertext, Eco observed that this threw up about 11,000 mentions of Jerusalem, but if he had resorted to his old academic perusal of texts from books he would have encountered perhaps 10 to 15 references of Jerusalem. He said: “I cannot manage to scan as many as 11,000 tokens. Now, if I had only my old traditional limitations then I would probably have done something more or less reasonable on that particular topic.”
Elaborating further on the theme of information overload, he said: “My theory is that there is no difference between the Sunday New York Times and the Pravda of the old days. The Sunday New York Times that can have 600 or 700 pages altogether really just contains all news fit to print. But one week is not enough to read a number of the Sunday New York Times. So therefore, the fact that the news items are there is irrelevant, or immaterial, because you cannot retrieve them. So what then is the difference between the Pravda, which didn’t give any news, and The New York Times, which gives too much? Once upon a time, if I needed a bibliography on Norway and semiotics, I went to a library and probably found four items. I took notes and found other bibliographical references. Now with the Internet, I can have 10,000 items. At this point I become paralysed. I simply have to choose another topic.”
Those were the days when search engines came up with just 10,000 items. Today, they come up with at least a million pages making no sense of this abundance. Umberto Eco spells out some of the crucial problems of the electronic community before endorsing the enabling elements of the Gutenberg’s universe. He says: “(1) Solitude. The new citizen of this new community is free to invent new texts, to cancel the traditional notion of authorship, to delete the traditional divisions between author and reader, but the risk is that — being in touch with the entire world by means of a galactic network — one feels alone.... (2) Excess of information and inability to choose and to discriminate…But, the written War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of Freedom, but with the severe law of Necessity.”
The legacy media can function as a fine curator by classifying and categorising the digital platforms’ abundance, become a silos breaker of its insularity, to bridge the virtual and real world, to provide a context and hence give a meaning to information. This cooperation has the potential to give information an edge in making our own choices in our daily democratic practices. The partnership between WikiLeaks and The Hindu is an indicator of the ways legacy media can fruitfully coexist with the digital possibilities. Probably, we may soon have a “digical” platform.
The possibility of coexistence — 2