Davos: Too little content

The one interesting thing I’ve heard so far at Davos this year is that the world doesn’t have too much content. It has too little. So says Philip Parker of INSEAD, who is doing fascinating work with automatic creation of content. He’s not doing it for evil purposes: content farms and spam. He is doing it to fill in knowledge that is missing in the world, especially in smaller cultures and languages.

Parker’s system has written tens of thousands of books and is even creating fully automated radio shows in many languages, some of which have never been used for weather reports (they don’t have words for “degree” or “celsius”). He used his software to create a directory of tropical plants that didn’t exist. And he has radio beaming out to farmers in poor third-world nations.

I’m fascinated by what Parker’s project says about our attitudes toward content: that we in the West think there’s too much of it (we’re overloaded); that content is that which content creators create; that content has to be owned; that it has to be inefficient and expensive to be good and useful.

In the U.S., there already is a company that automates the writing of sports stories (another straight line). Thomson Reuters has been automatically spitting out formatted financial stories since 2006. So this is nothing new, except that Parker is putting the notion to new use.

I’m intrigued by the potential uses of Parker’s content extruder. For example, I am on the board of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and I imagine this technology could be used to deliver content, especially more current content — aurally — to its clients, whom I say don’t have learning disabilities but who learn differently.

Now tie that notion to the third world and we can even come to define literacy differently. If we can inform and educate people in their own languages through listening — rather than insisting on reading text — then haven’t we expanded the world of the literate greatly? Don’t we have better-informed nations and economies?

Academics from the University of Southern Denmark say that we are passing through the other side of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, returning to oral exchange and distribution of knowledge. Parker can serve that shift with his audio content.

He also helps us expand the reach and use of content, for his technology can gather bits of information from here and there that fit together and put them in a new form that is newly usable. It’s the Wikipedia worldview. Indeed, I suggested to Parker that he could help Wikipedia meet one of its key strategic goals — creating deeper content in more languages — through the automated generation of the first draft of articles, paving the way for editors.

Parker looks for content that is formulaic. That’s what his technology can replace. He studied TV news and found that 70% of its content is formulaic. No surprise. Most of it could be replaced with a machine.

That’s not just my joke and insult. The more efficient we make the creation of content, the less we will waste on repetitive tasks with commodified results, and the more we can concentrate our valuable and scarce resources on necessity and quality. Certain people will likely screech that such thinking and technology further deprofessionalizes the alleged art of creating content. So be it.

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  • Jeff,

    tiny nitpicking, it is INSEAD not INSAED.

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  • Parker is right about the TV news being formulaic. Why stop there? Have you not seen the parade of forensic detective shows on each channel on each night? How about the writer/consultant helping the police? How about the mentalist/consultant helping the police? Over an over, we see the same themes and plots replayed.

    That is not what makes them useful or entertaining, it is what makes them and television destined for extinction.

    Let’s not have this happen to the internet. The goal of any of these content farms is to mass produce content and monetize it. There is no higher purpose.

    They will turn the internet into a useless piece of repetitive dribble.

    • Andy Freeman

      > The goal of any of these content farms is to mass produce content and monetize it. There is no higher purpose.

      The same is true of newspapers, magazines, and so on. The only difference is that these “mass content producers” are automated.

      It’s like John Henry vs the steam drill. You do know that we’re better off with steam drills, right?

      BTW – Since “produce content and monetize it” is all that any professional writer does, complaining about a lack of “a higher purpose” is somewhat curious.

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  • Jeff,
    Great meeting you. For the record, the site for radio is http://www.donateyourvoice.org.
    best wishes,

  • I think it is commoditization not commodification. I dug out this distinction from James Surowiecki in Slate 13 years ago: “Commoditization is therefore different from commodification, the word cultural critics use to decry the corruption of higher goods by commercial values. Microprocessors are commoditized. Love is commodified.”

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  • I hate to appear ignorant, but clearly I’m willing to risk it by writing here … What is Davos?

    What does “is even creating fully automated radio shows in many languages, some of which have never been used for weather reports” mean (or is this humor that went over my head)?

    What do we use “a directory of tropical plants that didn’t exist” for? Is this plants that didn’t exist or a directory that didn’t exist (the latter might make sense.) Perhaps he can create a dictionary of words that don’t exist too.

  • I agree that formulaic content can be commoditified, and that content creation for the utilitarian usage can be automated. However, the generalization of content creation automation makes us startled. Content is a marketing currency. I am curious about the impact of the automated content creation to the marketing practice… and how Google will value or devalue the machine generated content, which gives life to either initiate buzz or be void of buzz.

  • yang yun

    Philip M Parker is just polluting cyberspace. Each ‘book’ is just a lure, trolling the searching engines to waste your time with offer to read for $495 what his bot has just scraped off the net for free. Its like bottling water.

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