Is publishing really doomed by oversupply of writing?

Until the digital age, content was scarce. It wasn’t scarce because people didn’t create it; it was scarce because it required an investment to distribute it. That’s no longer true. Anybody with an Internet connection can make anything they write (or snap or video or sing) available to anybody else with an Internet connection. For just about free. That’s just one reason — among many — why the amount of content choices available to everybody has mushroomed in the past 15 years.

When the supply of something goes up faster than demand, the price of the something drops. Or, put another way, money flows to scarcity. And content is anything but scarce. That, in a nutshell, is the inexorable problem publishers face. And every day it gets worse. More backlist and out of print and public domain and orphan books get digitized and made available. More bloggers blog. More commercial operations put content online to satisfy their own stakeholders. More videos are uploaded to YouTube and more documents are uploaded to Scribd. All of it is processed and made discoverable by Google and other search engines. And the cumulative effect of all this content being created as something other than new publications for sale is cutting into the market for content that is being created with the expectation of sale.


I understand the basic argument that Mike Shatzkin makes here (and others often elsewhere), but I have one fundamental doubt (hope?) about it:

Yes, there’s plenty of supply out there. But is the supply of really good stuff actually much much larger? Certainly not in the proportion that supply in general is.

Let’s assume for a minute that No, the supply of really good writing has not expanded immensely. (An arguable point, I know, but go with it for a moment.) If that’s the case, is there still a way that the best writing can be charged for profitably, whatever the medium — or will the robust supply of not-quite-as-good writing (or far-from-as-good writing) provide enough value for its low cost that no one will chip in extra for high value? And if there are readers willing to pay for good stuff (I certainly am), is there a business/publishing model that can, as it were, indulge them?

That’s the discussion that gets left out when people look at supply as monolithic. Think food. There’s LOTS of food available in the U.S., much of it very cheap compared to historical norms, because supply is great. But people still pay for especially good meals and even pretty good meals. Can we expect no equivalent regarding books and articles?

Posted via web from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

Blogosauruses and bad bad bad bad science TV

I wanted to rig up an electrified fence around the falsehood to keep the producers from sneaking back to it


Carl Zimmer on just how damned bad much science TV is. I’ve not advised programs, as Carl has, but the times I’ve seen subjects I’d written about covered on TV — DBS for depression, and Williams syndrome, which I’d written about for the Times Mag and both of which were subsequently covered by 60 MInutes — the TV results were truly appalling. And that was the hallowed supposedly best-of TV 60 Minutes.

It’s nice when you see it done better. Too bad it’s so rare.

Posted via web from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

Stress is an old, old companion


 A nice short piece on “The Prehistory of Stress” by Matt Ford at Ars Technica (newly designed site worth checking out).

I have heard people say, on multiple occasions, that they think stress is a modern, Western phenomenon. While the psychological phenomenon known as stress has only had a formal name for just over 80 years, knowing when it was first suffered by our ancestors is a daunting task. Was life really better in the past? Is stress an entirely modern phenomenon?

Using modern forensic technology and a decidedly modern understanding of biochemistry, researchers from The University of Western Ontario have taken a look at stress levels in pre-Colombian Peru; their findings are summarized in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science. They found that stress has plagued humanity for at least 1500 years. The researchers were able to get the dead to give up not only their final secrets, but an understanding of their life for a few years before they shuffled off this mortal coil.

When humans get stressed, our bodies release a chemical known as cortisol, which appears in our blood, our urine, and even our hair. Of those three, hair is only one stands the test of over 1000 years of time, and provides a short history of the last years that its owner had. By examining hair strands from 10 individuals at five different dig sites in Peru, the researchers were able to determine how stressed people were, using the levels of cortisol in segments of their hair.

The team found that the time just before the individuals passed away was a stressful one–not an overly surprising result. But the majority of the individuals had lived through stressful periods in the years leading up to their death, suggesting that stress was a regular part of life in the pre-modern period. Perhaps this can be filed under “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet, like Ford,  I am surprised at how many people assume that life in earlier times was less stressful.   This colors our view of our typical reactions to stress — withdrawal, aggression — which we tend to see as anomalous and define as maladaptive.  But as the orchid or sensitivity hypothesis suggests, it makes much more sense to view these reactions as adaptive in many situations and maladaptive in other situations. Their value depends on their context.  Quitting school and doing a youth gang, for instance, can be a pretty adaptive move considered from a local context — one’s prospects in the immediate neighborhood and social structure — but a lousy move considered from a broader societal context. And all sorts of behaviors that are considered maladaptive within the particular constraints and values of our culture make sense when viewed with more sensitivity to human history.
The paper, by Emily Webb and others at the University of Western Ontario, is at the Journal of Archeological Science. You can find some other write-ups here.

Rebooting (and Funding) Science Journalism

At the ScienceOnline 2010 conference next month, I’m going to be on a panel about “Rebooting Science Journaiism,” in which I’ll join Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, and John Timmer in pondering the future of science journalism. God knows what will come of it, as none of us have the sure answers. But that session, as well as the entanglement of my own future with that of science journalism, has me focused on the subject. And two recent online discussions about it have piqued my interest.
One was the reaction, on a science writer’s email-list I’m on, to a recent Poynter interview with Times science writer Natalie Angier, in which she said

It’s basically going out of existence.

I can’t quote directly from the email list, since it’s a closed forum and meant to be private. But suffice to say this interview created a bit of stir there and elsewhere among science writers. Some seemed to feel that if so well-placed a colleague as Angier was feeling the heat (as well she might, given the layoffs recently at the Times), then things were bad indeed. A couple wondered if this was news to her, and if so, where she’d been the last ten years or so. (The answer: Busy writing to good effect and pay.) The most common reaction was to lament the layoffs and disappearance of science coverage in so many daily newspapers and elsewhere.
At this point I felt obliged to chime in that while the disappearance of MSM science journalism is a problem, a lot of the kind of content it was providing — especially simple reporting of studies and explanations of findings — is being replaced, in a manner, by science writers writing in blogs. As I wrote the email group:

Missing from [the Poynter article] is that much good science reporting (of a sort) is being delivered via blogs. That doesn’t get those reports to the mass audience. But it does mean the stuff is out there, so it’s not as if this information just disappeared. THere’s probably more going on now than there was 10 years ago — just not in the same places, and produced and disseminated and vetted via different conventions.
David “Where Has All the Science Gone?” Dobbs

it took only a few hours for someone to raise doubts about what the bloggers deliver, given a) the individual perspectives they sometimes bring and b) the lack of reporting (that is, interviewing and research) that often goes along with uncompensated blogging. Valid concerns, variations of which I have expressed myself before. But as I noted in my response,

Wuh-oh. I sense a slide into old trenches here.
No, most bloggers don’t do [a lot of reporting] — then again, fewer msm reporters are doing it these days, because they’ve been laid off or either don’t take or aren’t given thebtime to do the job right.
The q is not what’s better, present blog approach or increasingly rare msm/trad reporting approach. (God knows, no one values and loves deep, well-financed reporting than I do.) The q is how to come up with new models that allow the best of all these worlds, so that a robust, informed, diverse, well-reported, and well-written examination of science (and the rest of the world) can reach as many readers as possible.
I’m not suggesting the present blogosphere adequately replaces what is being lost. But I did think it important to note that it does replace some of what is being lost while offering some new things as well. That was left out of the story in E&P (the death of which breaks my heart). All I was saying — tho I’ll obviously say more if provoked.

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Orchids & dandelions on the radio, ctd

Last Friday I was on “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” the excellent talk show put out by Wisconsin Public Radio, talking with Anne Strainchamps about my Atlantic article. Strainchamps is a good interviewer and we got some interesting calls. Those who missed it can listen to the hour-long segment here (Look for the “Listen to Archive” link just below the program description.)
And now I’m off to drive across the frozen north. More later.

Does the “orchid-dandelion” metaphor work for you? My duel with David Shenk


Dear Readers, here’s your chance to weigh in:

Over at the Atlantic, David Shenk, a sharp writer who keeps a blog there called “The Genius in Us All,” has posted a gentlemanly smackdown (“Metaphor fight! Shenk and Dobbs square off”) that he and I had via email last week regarding the “orchid-dandelion” metaphor I used in my recent Atlantic piece, “Orchid Children” (online version title: “The Science of Success”). Every metaphor has its limits, and David Shenk, a highly capable writer, recognizes that well. Yet he thinks this orchid-dandelion metaphor is fatally flawed, at least as I use it; I think its strengths outweigh its limitations. One thing led to another …
Our exchange on the subject is below. Out of curiosity — and because I’m fixin’ to write a book on the topic — I’d love to know what readers think of this. Does the orchid-dandelion cast the temperamental differences too starkly? Or is it a useful shorthand for the differences in temperamental sensitivity that these behavioral genes appear to create? Chime in in the comments. And if you still feel restless after doing so here, you can go to Shenk’s site and put in your two cents there as well.
NB: Stage directions and art grab by David Shenk.
NB2: No real blood was spilled in the writing of this post.
NB3: I typed my entries with my left hand — and I am not left-handed.

Here’s Shenk’s post:

In response to this month’s Atlantic feature “The Science of Success,” by David Dobbs, which I admired, I invited Dobbs to engage in short back-and-forth over one particular gripe I had. He graciously accepted. Children, avert your eyes. This is literary brawling the likes of which haven’t been seen since Norman Mailer head-butted Gore Vidal.
Shenk alights from behind a doorway with his first jab:

Congratulations on your beautifully rendered “Orchid” piece. You do a superb job of illustrating the notion that the same gene can yield very different results in different circumstances. I particularly admire the way you end the piece — falling back on the essential truth of the parent helping to constantly flip little genetic switches in the child. I consider this piece a landmark step forward in the difficult transition of helping the public understand what genetic expression is all about.
My one not-so-small quibble is that I think you let the metaphor get away from you a bit. While the “orchid” metaphor is a provocative way to illustrate that certain genes or combinations of genes might increase plasticity, the “dandelion” half of the metaphor strongly suggests that “most of us” don’t have very much plasticity — i.e., that the dandelion kids don’t have much potential to be either down-and-out or enormously successful. Being familiar with some of your previous work, I don’t think that’s the message you intend to send.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that you actually believe that science has demonstrated that most of us are destined to a hardy mediocrity. If you are taking that position, I’ll respectfully disagree and let’s debate that point.
Your earlier work (which helped to inspire my forthcoming book) suggests that you have a very keen understanding of the extraordinary plasticity built into virtually all of us. I submit that this doesn’t contradict the science in your new piece. We can recognize certain extraordinary orchid alleles without rhetorically ghettoizing the other alleles as not-very-plastic dandelion weeds. After all, the studies you cite are presenting population percentages — they are not showing a clean separation between individuals with or without the alleles. Clearly, as this science marches on, we’re going to be stumbling onto specific genes and combinations that seem to have a particular influence in one direction or another. But as we do, I think we need to be careful not to overstate their lessons. We don’t want to leave readers with the impression that, without a particular allele, a person is protected from being depressed or barred from having super-talent.
To sum up, and I know this inconvenient for you, I suggest that you need to drop the “dandelion” half of the metaphor. It’s a vivid contrast to the orchid metaphor, but I believe it’s too misleading.

Dobbs side-steps, casually finishes his drink, and winds up:

Thanks for the nod and the good questions.

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Say what? Facebook profiles capture true personality, according to new psychology research

Facebook profiles capture true personality, according to new psychology research

Online social networks such as Facebook are being used to express and communicate real personality, instead of an idealized virtual identity, according to new research from psychologist Sam Gosling at The University of Texas at Austin.

“I was surprised by the findings because the widely held assumption is that people are using their profiles to promote an enhanced impression of themselves,” says Gosling of the more than 700 million people worldwide who have online profiles. “In fact, our findings suggest that online social networking profiles convey rather accurate images of the profile owners, either because people aren’t trying to look good or because they are trying and failing to pull it off.

“These findings suggest that online social networks are not so much about providing positive spin for the profile owners,” he adds, “but are instead just another medium for engaging in genuine social interactions, much like the telephone.”


Strange. They suggest that ‘genuine social interactions’ presumably convey ‘true personality’ rather than spun persona. How do you square this with Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” which asserts we’re always spinning a public persona.

Maybe when I get the paper instead of the press release ….

Posted via web from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

Are “orchid kids” the same as “gifted children”?

Over at the Times Magazine Motherlode blog, Lisa Belkin ran a short post about my Atlantic “Orchid Children” piece a couple days ago, and some of the responses she got strike to an issue that has come up quite a few other places. I posted a note on this at Motherlode, and wanted to expand on it a bit here as well. This is the first what may be several posts of the “FAQ” sort examining reader or blogger concerns.
In this case, the concern dominating the Motherlode commenter thread responses, and in a few other places as well, is whether the “Orchid Children” of my title are what many people call “gifted” children (defined roughly as very smart kids who have behavioral issues requiring some special handling). The short answer to this question — that is, whether by “orchid children” I mean smart-but-difficult — is No.

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Top Five Posts at Neuron Culture in November

1. Maybe it was just the headline … but the runaway winner was “No pity party, no macho man.” Psychologist Dave Grossman on surviving killing. Actually I think it was the remarkable photo, which looks like a painting. Check it out.

2. I’m not vulnerable, just especially plastic. Risk genes, environment, and evolution, in the Atlantic. The blog post about the article that led to the book.

3. Senator Asks Pentagon To Review Antidepressants

4. Gorgeous thing of the day: Sky’s-eye view of the Maldives & other islands

5. The Weird History of Vaccine Adjuvants, even though it was from Oct 1, was #5 in November as well.