Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Babel Objection

One of the areas I discuss in my presentation on the regulation of political music is the relative obscurity in which this form of expression is presently placed. One of the changes I have made to my paper is to include a reference to the text The Wealth of Networks by Professor Benkler of Harvard University.

Benkler considers criticisms raised regarding the democratising potential of the internet and in particular examines the ‘Babel objection’. In Chapter 5 he discusses the idea of information overload and states:

The cornucopia of stories out of which each of us can author our own will only enhance autonomy if it does not resolve into a cacophony of meaningless noise... Having too much information with no real way of separating the wheat from the chaff forms what we might call the Babel objection. Individuals must have access to some mechanism that sifts through the universe of information, knowledge, and cultural moves in order to whittle them down to a manageable and usable scope [Ch 5 pg 22-23].

He goes on to note that there are two primary mechanisms by which the Babel objection is overcome in the digital environment. Firstly, instead of isolated sites and users, there is a tendency for common interests to cluster (such as through interlinking) to establish both a core group of sites relating to certain themes as well as other more loosely connected but associated sources. He refers to this as a Bow Tie structure [Ch 7 pg 27]. Furthermore, peer recommendation, editing and filtering mechanisms assist to order the information on the internet to ensure that it is both diverse and manageable [Ch 5 pg 24].

He then goes on to refer directly to the improvements that the networked information economy provides with respect to music:

Instead of relying on the judgement of record labels and a DJ of a commercial radio station for what music is worth listening to, users can compare notes as to what they like, and give music to friends whom they think will like it. This is the virtue of music file-sharing systems as distribution systems [Ch 5 pg 25].

While I agree with the sentiments expressed with respect to music generally, when one examines the digital environment with a distinct focus on political music it becomes apparent that there is not a high level of clustering, filtering or peer recommendation.

In proposing specific strategies such as:

  1. The allocation of dedicated space for political songs on digital music sites and the integration of weblogs, wikis and discussion forums,
  2. Modifications to search engines to allow songs to be searched by imbedded tags or key words,
  3. Allowing non commercial uses by genuine non profit websites, and
  4. The development of a central repository or archive,

my goal is to create a digital environment which enables clustering, peer recommendation and filtering in order that oppositional audible culture may overcome the Babel objection and realise its true communicative capacity.

Further Reading
Yochai Benkler, ‘The Wealth of Networks’ [Paper Friendly Version] (2006)
<> at 10 September 2008


Martin Sykora said...

Hi there, I am also a PhD student (from the UK - in Comp. Sci.) and I found your post interesting since I've read a lot about these and other social production issues.

I would say that the clustering principle referred to by Prof. Benkler is nothing new. Collaborative directory projects have been around for a very long time and search engines offer this clustering implicitly via every search keyword we search for.

What are your ideas on this?

Name: Sally Hawkins said...

Hey Martin - this was an old post - sorry to take so long to get back to you. I think you are right however I consider the clustering of sites to me more related to hyperlinks with search engines more related to filtering. Benkler makes some good points about the net and the value of collaborative work but overall the book was much longer than it needed to be - his message too was lost in the babel objection! :-)Sal