Branding information: new rage or new age scourge
INFORMATION seeking is a pervasive human activity that has a large social dimension in the modern environment. We gather information through a number of sources: universities, libraries, media and now the worldwide web to increase our knowledge, both for practical reasons and for pleasure. Either way, we look for quality information. If knowledge is food for the soul then we want to nourish it with wholesome as opposed to junk food, often because our survival depends on it. This is why we direct our information seeking at authoritative informants. For instance, if I want medical information, I call a doctor or look up a medical book; I will not ask a child or a passer-by on the street for this information.
Complex societies delegate their communal knowledge gathering and knowledge dissemination to various specialized agencies. Justice systems are set up to determine who commits crimes; census takers are appointed to collect population statistics; schools are established to transmit knowledge. Some societies insist that all the knowledge they hold is branded to start with. Take the instance of the Noble Peace prize winning work I, Rigoberta Menchu. When it was discovered that there were substantial inaccuracies in this account of Guatemalan authoritarianism, they were vigorously denied. The clash of information versus knowledge was sought to be quelled by appealing to the concept of a ‘brand’. Menchu’s brand of experience was sought to be explained away as belonging to the collective consciousness of the Mayan people. When brand is used to clobber knowledge then information cannot be questioned. Or so it seems and on that, more later.
Community knowledge systems are often run by the state. However, in free market economies, thriving private and public run industries are also involved in the collection and the dissemination of information. In the last century, media companies have grown from being publishers of simple tabloids to global multi- media giants providing a wide range of information and services – financial, political, commercial, technical. For instance, McGraw Hill began with the two founders, James H. McGraw and John Hill as separate and independent publishers of technical and trade journals in the late 1880s. Today, many mergers and acquisitions later, McGraw Hill is one of the premier information providers in the world – including the highly leveraged Standard and Poor brand for trusted global financial information and analysis.
Information provided by government and non-government organizations or by corporate bodies, whether on paper or on the web, has the advantage of acceptable authorship and is hence verifiable. Any information can be cross-checked with a user’s internal reference maps, i.e. cross checking with what one already knows or believes to be true. This kind of critical thinking, within personal reference frameworks, is usually done by most information seekers. This is of particular significance today, when an enormous glut of information has become available with the rapid development of e-information. If the Internet is the cheapest and most accessible source of information, it is also often the most anonymous and the least trustworthy – demanding a high degree of critical thinking to sift through the vast amounts of disinformation and misinformation passing for truth.
Information that is required for daily living in a society: information of laws, services that human beings make use of, the many functions of government, tax benefits, scholarships, social welfare services, and so on has till recently only been available in print, as government publications, or as verbal communication from government offices and press briefings or as direct written communication between the state and the individual. Without free access to such information, a modern society would experience great discomfort and would gradually enter chaos. Information deprived societies slide downwards into an ignorant mess or worse, into totalitarian controlled economies. Today these options of information deprivation are getting choked off. Information is almost all pervasive and sometimes impossible to stem.
Today we have the dawn of a new era. We now have societies where almost all the information we want is available on the web. The web sites actually hosting and serving this information are usually irrelevant to a surfer, only the information is of importance. Net businesses have become savvy to this and have found ways to capitalize on certain categories of information that are most commonly searched for. The compiled information they are charging you for is in the public domain – usually stored as raw data in government computers.
Enter the US government. On 26 June 2000, President Clinton announced the creation of a new web site ‘intended to be every citizen’s window to the federal government.’ It is to be called Firstgov.gov and will enable American citizens to search the full text of every government web page currently on the internet, estimated to be between 50 to 100 million pages.
Reaction to this announcement has been one of mild curiosity to outright consternation by private business groups which see this as the first step to regulating the flow of information which, they say, violates the public’s Right to Information Act. They accuse the US government of ‘seeking to brand federal information’ and by leveraging the site’s brand, trying to control how other web sites use and display information. Even assuming that the US government is working in the public interest by authenticating information, such branding of public information by a government could open up a can of worms – setting precedents for other governments not to subject themselves to the same checks and balances that limit the powers of democratically elected governments.
This leads to the question: Is authentication of information on the web the only way to bring order to chaos? The reply must be: Not if all authentication (and I use the word ‘all’ advisedly) implies branding with its two handmaidens – selectivity and price. Since knowledge is critically dependent on the information that is available, once selection has affected or impacted the choice of information, how useful is it for those who hope to pursue the path of knowledge? Can there be free knowledge – as we understand it – without access to unfettered information? Once the screen of selectivity has been applied is it still the kind of information that can be the basis of knowledge? Is knowledge itself branded by this process?
Given the fact that currently regular internet users still number only a few million worldwide and are mostly limited to a socio-cultural elite if one discounts occasional users in cyber-cafes and the like, such authentication is best left to the users themselves who are perfectly capable of differentiating, for the most part, between good information and disinformation. However, as internet users grow in numbers and the web itself becomes a mass media, on-line information branding will inevitably gain momentum.
Branding at its core is a mnemonic devise used by corporates to expand their markets. As customer numbers grow, we are talking of the initial community of top quality buyers being joined by many, many more. The first rung of top quality customers are usually the ones with the most information, who have direct contact with the producer or who know enough to be torn away from another product or service to the new product on offer. When new customers join in droves, the level of direct contact reduces.
The new customers know less; they, however, must know enough and must be able to discern good from evil (read the competition). Here enters the BRAND. If branding is done well then customers know all about the product. They trust the brand because they know the product from the brand alone. Soon others join in. They see others trust the brand so now they too buy the product. The brand grows.
At that time, the second aspect of branding – price – will quite possibly determine who gets the best product (read knowledge). Furthermore, the quality of information itself – which is the basis of knowledge – will become questionable once it is screened. Can we have a free society where all information is screened and knowledge is necessarily imperfect, biased and incomplete? Will moves towards a knowledge economy or even more broadly, a knowledge society, require freer access to information or will big information brands dominate the knowledge landscape of the future? Will quality information brands become so expensive that the new knowledge elite of tomorrow automatically also becomes the only economic elite – with no anxieties of their domination being under threat? Will capital again exact its ultimate revenge?
Are we, in fact, moving towards a Brave Net World as Luciano Floridi suggests, or is this overstating the case? Although internet users are growing rapidly in numbers, the world wide web is growing faster, and much of the material available on the web is stored as raw data – the bricks and mortar of information. If this free availability of raw data on the web is eroding the value of a large number of intellectual works on paper, particularly bibliographies and compilations of data earlier generally inaccessible, it is also democratizing knowledge for the same reason – easy accessibility. Only compiled information can be branded or intellectually owned. Raw data will, and ultimately must, in a free society, continue to be freely available in the public domain.
Virtually all information that exists in the public domain has always been available to everyone usually for the price of the information medium itself. This was once universally true and the price often varied – be it a moment of your time, the cost of a book, a magazine, a subscription to a newspaper or a news channel. This is true even of such momentous and fundamental bits of information as Galileo’s discoveries, Newton’s laws and Einstein’s theories. Whole societies and nations have progressed through easy accessibility to the enormous body of information that has been collected over centuries of human endeavour and of human observation.
But knowledge and information, even when branded, have constantly to face the test of truth. A wonderful instance that comes to mind is Newtonian truth. By all accounts Newton’s enormous clout as a scientist should have endowed his brand of information as fundamentally infallible. But clearly brands too can collapse ignominiously. Most of us do not know that Newton crowned his scientific career by becoming England’s top economist. But because he called disastrously wrong on the direction of the economic forecasts he made, Newtonian certitude did not become a byword for the dismal scientists of his era. His career as England’s Warden of the Mint is today a forgotten part of Newton’s achievements. A brand flayed is a brand failed.
News items that are reported by daily newspapers or news channels is information of events that have taken place in a country and in the world; speeches that have been made, actions that have been taken by governments, acts that have been performed by individuals, be they criminal or heroic. This raw data is also freely available; the newspaper or TV channel merely collates it and serves it in a convenient package. There is no copyright on this data. It is not, or at least ought not to be, the intellectual property of the news-servers.
But it isn’t as if everything that is news and therefore ought to be information is necessarily available. Those who have studied the recent history of Iran will agree to this. Basic information and even newspapers that report them are routinely closed depending on who comes to power. Repression of information is the dark side of the Islamic Republic. So is information, even when it is pure electoral news, truly free anywhere in the world? The answer is a resounding no – except on the web where easy and cheap accessibility and the plurality of information protects against disinformation and censorship.
In the last century, an enormous quantity of disinformation in support of one ideology or another was disseminated by the mass media. Historically these have been powerful instruments for spreading propaganda, often leading to horrendous human suffering, as the German concentration camps bear mute testimony to. Today, in our own country, our children are victims of a pernicious kind of information branding that is taking advantage of a school system to mould unformed minds. Disinformation serves its purpose best where the three conditions of ignorance, coercion and impotence exist, and nowhere do they exist more fully than in primary schools, especially when even the legal guardians of children are themselves ignorant either of what is being taught or of how these teachings will define the thoughts and personalities of their children and impact society later on.
Branding of information in the service of politics or big business is another cynical form of disinformation – and we are being constantly bombarded with it, whether in the form of misleading advertising, ‘feel good’, self-congratulatory corporate newsletters, podium-thumping political speeches or, most cynically, touting of toxic substances as being good for the health by members of the medical profession in the pay of big business. Though I could quote a number of examples to illustrate this point, I’ll content myself with water fluoridation in North America and here I quote David R. Hill, Professor Emeritus, The University of Calgary: ‘Fluoride has been peddled as a health nutrient for over fifty years in North America in the press and the advertising media – often against glaring scientific proof to the contrary. The only people who truly benefit from the widespread use of fluoride in toothpaste and in drinking water supplies are the big industries that generate fluoride as a waste product. They not only solve their pollution problems but make a tidy profit selling their toxic residues to be eaten, drunk and spread on teeth by an unsuspecting populace governed by gullible officials.’
Information technology has greatly enhanced the potential value of most information that is in the public domain. How government bodies and public and private sector businesses will exploit this potential and what effect this will have on what has hitherto been an unhindered flow of information is unclear. A time may come when the plurality of information may cease to exist – and all that one will have access to is branded, authenticated and hence, virtually censored information.
The risk of this happening will increase when convergence is fully implemented. The pulling down of technical barriers that currently exist between different types of media will cut down the plurality of types of mass media and hence, information. Once this happens, the emergence of monopolies with their enormous potential for facilitating and spreading disinformation will constitute a real threat to the relatively free flow of information that exists today. What information advisors have done to kings and prime ministers, what spin doctors assist corporators with and what publicists achieve routinely for celebrities are all variants on a more sinister theme that still has to be fully played out. Are we nearer an end game today as information – branded or bandied – becomes mere putty in the tubes of the medium that transports it and of engineers who manipulate its flow? How all this will impact human social and intellectual development can only be guessed at as we enter the new millennium of what is being branded as the knowledge century.