Bacon, Vico, and the “Long Tail”

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user spratmackrel]
[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user spratmackrel]
In his essay, “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson observes that the our ability to overcome the ‘tyranny of physical space’ through the use of a combination of online databases and streaming services has fundamentally altered business models and, as a consequence, has radically increased our access to information. In the past, limited by the physical constraints of location and shelf space, retailers were forced to carry a small selection of material that appealed to the greatest proportion of a local market. In terms of the book industry, these limitations mean that books rapidly go out of print and become very difficult to come by after a relatively short period of time. In contrast, however, the ability of companies like Amazon to replace small store fronts with massive warehouses, and to leverage the internet to reach global markets, has allowed them to carry and generate significant revenue from products in a way that smaller markets would not produce. This model becomes even more profitable when the products themselves are digital (as in the case of music, movies, books, software, etc), since a single stored copy can be infinitely licensed and distributed, which is to say, sold. The first of three ‘rules’ that Anderson offers businesses in this new digital economy is “Make Everything Available.” Since there is a market for everything, and since the cost of storage is so incredibly low, there is profit to be made even from the most obscure (and awful) material: “In the Long Tail economy, it’s more expensive to evaluate than to release. just do it!”

We do indeed seem to be moving more and more from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance. From a scholarly perspective, this means the development of a rich, extensive, inexpensive (Anderson’s second rule is “cut the price in half, then lower it”), and easily accessible archive of material. As Anderson observes, “it is a fair bet that children today will grow up never knowing the meaning of “out of print.” On the other hand, however, I wonder what an economically driven abundance (concerned with quantity over quality) will have on our ideas about the value of tradition.

In the early days of the Enlightenment, there was some discussion about the scarcity of available information relative to the total amount of material that had presumably been produced. In this, there seems to have been two primary perspectives. From Francis Bacon we learn that it was common for scholars at that time to believe that the works that had survived had done so by virtue of their importance and, consequently, represented the best that the history of ideas had to offer. In contrast to this dominant position, Bacon argued that it was not in fact the best that had endured, but rather the most trivial.

Another error, that hath also some affinity with the former, is a conceit that of former opinions or sects after variety and examination the best hath still prevailed and suppressed the rest; so as if a man should begin the labour of a new search, he were but like to light upon somewhat formerly rejected, and by rejection brought into oblivion; as if the multitude, or the wisest for the multitude’s sake, were not ready to give passage rather to that which is popular and superficial than to that which is substantial and profound for the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid. (Bacon, The Advancement of Learning)

In essence, Bacon advocates an approach that would abandon tradition entirely, and systematically create new repositories of knowledge built upon firm foundations. Since the best has been lost, and what remains has little value, Bacon leaves us with little choice in the matter. Responding to Bacon, who is notorious for his rejection of the value of tradition, Giambattista Vico supports the former view, the view that Bacon insists is in error:

There is, therefore, more wit than truth in Bacon’s statement that in the tidal wave of the barbarians’ invasions, the major writers sank to the bottom, while the lighter ones floated on the surface. In each branch of learning, instead, it is only the most outstanding authors who have reached us, by virtue of being copied by hand. If one or another was lost, it was purely by chance. (Vico 1990, 73)

For Vico, Bacon makes a mistake in accounting for scarcity by emphasizing what falls away. For Bacon, it seems, knowledge persists unless something happens to it, and it just so happens that the finest knowledge is the first to be lost. In contrast, Vico argues that the opposite is the case: that knowledge naturally decays over time, and that its endurance is only made possible through the active (providential) intervention of scribes motivated by an interest in preserving the finest and best. Both authors are resigned to the fact that what’s lost is lost. When it comes to accounting for the scarce intellectual resources that have persisted through time, however, Bacon views this scarcity as evidence of inferiority, and Vico of eminence.

Under conditions of scarcity, whether high (in the case of Vico) or low (in the case of Bacon), knowledge has value, and this valuable nature of knowledge demands a response. If received knowledge is of high value, then it ought to be preserved; if not, then it ought to be jettisoned. But what kind of value does knowledge have within a ‘long-tail’ information economy characterized by abundance? (This would, of course, be an obvious place to bring in Walter Benjamin and his comments on the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and for that reason I will resist the temptation).

A central part of digital literacy (something that we, in higher education, are increasingly encouraged to incorporate into our learning outcomes, at least latently) is the ability to evaluate and judge the quality of sources that are found online. With so much information at our fingertips, and the flattening of value that comes as a result of an approach to content delivery that would release rather than evaluate, are we entering a period that, with Vico, is appreciating tradition more and more by virtue of the fact that we have more and more of it? Or is tradition quickly being stripped of its value as a consequence of the fact that all knowledge is lumped together as equally valuable within the marketplace of ideas? In other words, does our increased access to the past (and other marginal material) give it more importance, more of a voice, in the present? Or does this abundance justify its dismissal (a la Bacon) in the face of a present and future that really count?