Scrapbook: Niall Ferguson on culture, text-for-profit, libraries, search and literacy

Niall Ferguson was speaking at the Long Now Foundation, responding to a question from Stewart Brand about how ads and the profit-motive influenced the nature of search and the internet echo-chamber.

Google and Facebook in particular are platforms driven by user-engagement and time-on-platform (the source of their ad revenue) and as a result tend to give us more of what we like or agree with already, filtering out sources that might challenge our views. 

If you look back on the way the printing press developed, there was a for profit wing that ultimately did finance itself by selling ads, and it evolved into newspapers and magazines.

But that was only a fraction of all the printed content that was out there. Most printed content was accessible free through things called libraries, and libraries were non profit.

Public libraries gradually began to spread in the protestant realms because remember, Protestantism insisted on literacy. A country like mine, Scotland, went from very low literacy to very high literacy because of the reformation. Schools had libraries. Books were regarded as a public good. And this meant that most printed content was not provided by profit making institutions. It was essentially free, and crucially, catalogued in increasingly effective and – I’ll call them objective – ways.

Anybody who’s spent time in one of the great libraries of the world, say the Cambridge University Library, knows that the books are sorted in such a way that you find the book that you’re after, and next to it are books on similar topics. This is an incredibly valuable thing if you’re doing serious research. 

Google is not like that. You may think that Google is like that, but you’re wrong, because that is not how search works…

Niall Ferguson – The Long Now Foundation – Networks and Power

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