Features » Media


Knowledge and its price

Rüdiger Wischenbart maps out some of the detours and barred routes in our information network.

A research group at the University of California in Berkeley recently attempted for the second time to estimate the total quantity of information currently stored in all media. Of interest in this context is less the total volume, an exotic 5 exabytes (which corresponds to 37 times the total volume of books stored in the Library of Congress in Washington DC), but rather certain details.

The total volume of information, claims the study, grows annually by about one third. By far the greatest proportion is represented by Office documents. Film production worldwide - which is included along with music - accounts for 30 percent. A mere 0.01 percent of all new original information is stored on paper, which nonetheless corresponds to 39 terabytes of storage capacity, or just under one third of the existing volumes held in the Library of Congress.

As one might expect, approximately one third of all printed information produced worldwide comes from the USA. Europe, presumably, is roughly on par.

When it comes to the 'knowledge' upon which this information is based, moreover, there probably exists a rough parity between Europe and the United States – even if this slightly fuzzy category is a good deal trickier to assess quantitatively. One plausible standard for undertaking such a quantitative comparison might be the book market, since the book continues to be the standard format for complex, elaborately processed knowledge, ranging from everyday lore to science, art and literature. Traditionally, the American and European book markets have had roughly comparable dimensions.

The relatively balanced relationship between Europe and the USA (and East Asia, should we extend the range of our inquiry) tips abruptly when we attempt to reconstruct cultural dynamics instead of information and knowledge. Taking the book market again as an example, it quickly becomes evident that the market for knowledge is substantially controlled by the G7 nations, that is to say, the large economic powers (the USA, Canada, the larger European nations and Japan), while the rest of the world plays a subordinate role as purchaser.

The picture shifts even more drastically when we attempt to identify the original languages of the works that currently dominate the global knowledge society. The single statistic which the contemporary media likes to foreground - namely the dominance of English – obscures the presence of far more dramatic structures lying behind it.

An already somewhat obsolete UNESCO statistic, one drawn from its World Culture Report of 2002, reckons that around one half of all translated books worldwide are based on English-language originals. And a recent assessment for France, which covers the year 2005, shows that 58 percent of all translations are from English originals. Traditionally, German and French originals account for an additional one quarter of the total. Yet only 3 percent of all translations, conversely, are from other languages into English.

The devil really is in the details. The French and German dialogue that was so painstakingly nurtured after World War II is reflected today in the mere 7.2 percent of French translations of German originals. Only 0.3 percent are from Polish. We are all aware of the close historical ties between Poland and France, and it is notable that after China, Poland purchases more translation licenses from Germany (and presumably a similar quantity from France) than any other country.

When it comes to book publishing, in short, the transfer of cultural knowledge consists of a network of one-way streets, detours, and barred routes.

Allow me to cite just one instance of such linguistic detours, in this case not an official statistic (for none exist in this context), but instead a count performed by a colleague in Belgrade, who analysed altogether 15,000 translations appearing in the Serbian language - that is to say, one of the minor languages - over the past 13 years.

He found that 74 percent of all translations were of English originals, while only 0.34 percent were from Bulgarian, 0.79 percent from Slovenian, 1 .11 percent from Polish, 5.5 percent from German, and 8.2 percent from French originals. Stated differently: anyone living in Belgrade who wants to find out about contemporary intellectual developments in neighbouring countries (or those in European powers such as Germany or France, both of tremendous importance for Serbia) must do so via translations from the English.

The central problem in this context is not the purported Americanization of knowledge or culture, but instead the vertical cascade of knowledge flows and cultural exports, characterized by a clear power hierarchy dominated by larger units in relation to smaller subordinated ones, as well as a scarcity of lateral connections.

Remaining for the moment with the book as our guiding medium, we observe that, paradoxically, European publishing houses assume a dominant position globally. There are no precise or reliable figures – and on the whole, the deficiency with regard to basic data is among the most remarkable features of the knowledge and culture markets. As a rule of thumb, we can assume that somewhere between 15 percent and one-third of the book market in the United States is controlled by media concerns that are either based in European or have their headquarters there, while conversely, no significant segment of the publishing industry in Europe is controlled from outside the continent. Nonetheless, as the instance of translations illustrates, this preponderance of cultural European power has done nothing to alter cultural differentials.

The centre is shifting, not only in the direction of the World Wide Web as a knowledge resource, but equally strongly within traditional domains, for example that of conventional book production. The globalisation of the traditional book market has led to a situation in which a relatively small number of titles - and correspondingly of topics and authors - have the status of global bestsellers, and represent an ever greater proportion of total sales. Many such global bestsellers are based on English language originals. Just think of Harry Potter or Dan Brown, whose cultural impact is heightened by film versions, many of them produced in the United States.

And yet this pattern of Anglophone dominance that people take so much pleasure complaining about in in the area of literature, is by no means the case for all branches of the publishing industry. The booming comic book market is propelled by Japanese, and increasingly Korean mangas. From a European perspective, to be sure, Hollywood appears all-powerful. In many parts of Asia and the Arab world, the influence of Bollywood – Indian film production – is far greater. National Geographic magazine recently calculated that with a potential audience of 3.6 billion people, Bollywood has far greater global reach than Hollywood.

The structural rule according to which a small number of global bestsellers represents an increasing proportion of the market is true not only at the global level, but at the national one as well. And it is here that we encounter the next surprise: when we examine the European bestseller lists, it quickly becomes evident just how prominently national titles figure in them, particularly in smaller or peripheral book or cultural markets, that is to say, in countries such as Norway, Austria or Spain, which are strongly preoccupied with delimiting their national identities.

And even if individual works succeed in finding their way into the realm of global culture through the traditional translation market (as was the case in recent years with Andrzej Stasiuk of Poland and with Hungarian Nobel prize winner Imre Kertesz, or lately with Daniel Kehlmann), then they are the exceptions which prove the rule of a vertical cascade.

More frequently, what obtains is the dynamic coexistence or medley involving a variety of languages, not in classical cultural precincts such as that of the book, but instead in highly specialized niches: in the visual arts or technology (in the Open Source movement), or among political and social activists. These are practically always composed of highly networked communities which almost invariably communicate through the World Wide Web, not the printed book.

The preliminary status of these developments is paradoxical. The strategist of one of the largest European publishing groups summed up the situation in a confidential discussion in the spring of 2003. Today, he said, substantial investments have made possible the digital integration of all logistics, the entire chain of value creation pertaining to book production, from the manuscript to administrative tasks and all the way to printing and distribution. But given fears about piracy, the book itself is delivered, as previously, exclusively in analog form, printed on paper. An online book, said the strategist, will be immediately pirated. But can you imagine, he quipped ironically, how my financial director regards this deployment of our investments and resources!

The recent push to render books and libraries accessible on the online digital knowledge landscape arrived only one year later, in 2004. It came from the outside, to begin with through an online book dealer, Amazon, and later through a search engine, so to a certain extent a bibliographical enterprise, Google, which thrust itself into the field with all the recklessness of the late newcomer.

A clash with representatives of the established publishing and knowledge markets was preordained. But this is not solely a conflict over copyright infringements, with the publishers vehemently asserting their exclusive right of access to books and their contents. Google's claim "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" (according to Google's mission statement) is a call to arms for the power to define knowledge and cultural content.

The value of a book is based essentially on its exclusivity, on its contents being available only between its two covers. Its author has chosen from among a multiplicity of stories or ideas to compose this self-contained text. For this achievement, he or she expects to become known, criticized, disseminated, cited, and of course, compensated financially. The same holds true for much information contained on the Web (such as scholarly archives or CNN's news database), where individual documents are clearly identified, are unalterable and available only for a fee.

But when books are published on the Web without hesitation and in grand style, then for the first time the rigorously formatted knowledge contained in books will be situated on the same level with all of the other variegated pages on the World Wide Web.

Previously, of course, large numbers of books have been accessible in large libraries, with older books imposing their contexts on each new release. The network of contents encompassing book knowledge is as old as the book itself. But direct access to the enormous and constantly growing abundance of information and contents via the new information and communication technologies shapes new knowledge landscapes and even allows new forms of knowledge power to emerge.

Theorists of networks like Albert-Laszlo Barabasi have demonstrated impressively how nodes of information do not form a balanced, level field. The more strongly they are linked, the more they tend to constitute just a few outstandingly prominent nodes where a substantial portion of the total information flow is bundled together. The result is the radical antithesis of visions of an egalitarian cyberspace.

This finding on the part of network theorists is compatible with the reply consistently proffered by Google when asked how it can possibly be profitable to commit such enormous investments to scanning gigantic libraries. Google's reputation as the best access to knowledge resources is so greatly enhanced, say Google representatives in informal conversation, that the increase in value dwarfs the costs entailed.

Beyond the massive information nodes, this transformation also reinforces movement at the other end of the scale. In late 2003, Chris Andersen, chief editor of the San Francisco-based Wired, the cultural magazine of the Internet generation, coined the concept "the long tail" to characterize this phenomenon. Andersen wanted to draw attention to the fact that forming itself behind the ever higher peaks represented by just a few bestsellers (and this is true for books, but also for music, film, and other forms of cultural production) is an extended and progressively flattening curve. A specialized public, one that pursues a highly differentiated set of interests going far beyond those of the mainstream, is enabled by the digital communication and information media to find what they are looking for. Anderson concludes plausibly that sales of books falling below this long curve constitute approximately one half of the growing online market.

Neither this new culture, nor this new knowledge base, both of which are stored and transmitted digitally, are in any way unified (or "homogenized," as one often hears in scare scenarios) in terms of content. On the contrary, they are in fact highly fragmented.

If, when breaking into the digital knowledge society, European initiatives (for instance regarding the digitalization of books) develop positions designed to counteract the hegemonic status of a small number of monopolistic protagonists, then it cannot possibly suffice to set a corresponding European pendant alongside existing "hyper nodes" such as Amazon and Google. We have seen this already quite clearly with reference to the publishing market: the fact that so many globally leading houses are solidly based in Europe does nothing to correct the prevailing disequilibrium between cultures.

But there exists a massive problem in both the structure and economics of cultural linkage and transfer, in the cultural networks existing beyond the powerful nodes, beyond the high peaks of the bestseller lists. To be sure, the diversity found below the elongated, flattened curve does constitute, in the aggregate, approximately one half of the total market. But despite this, individual authors, niche publishing houses, translators and intermediaries are barely compensated for their services. Of course, these multifarious works are produced, and they are sought out and consumed by their respective publics. But the "long tail" fails to gain a foothold in the economy of cultural markets, only to become - as in the 18th century – the province of the amateur. Such is the danger when our attention is drawn exclusively to dominant productions, and away from the less surveyable domains of cultural and knowledge associations.

I want to submit three proposals designed to draw our attention to the unsurveyable territory that exists alongside the large-scale projects:

1. We need greater and more precise knowledge about variegated activities occurring in diverse zones. Even in more accessible areas such as that of knowledge and cultural transfer by means of translations, we have only spotty knowledge of what is going on, and then only for a few countries. We know very little about how attentiveness and preferences switch between the expanded offerings and channels of communication, in particular when it comes to a younger public. Up to this point, we have been a knowledge society that knows very little about itself.

2. We need flexible options for stimulating broad and open-minded curiosity about culture and knowledge, options unconstrained by excessively complicated legal strictures. Not unlike those contained in good old citation law, we need provisions which not only allow, but actively encourage the public to access introductory excerpts of works of intellectual property, whether textual, visual, or aural.

3. We must ensure that economically viable conditions are permitted to emerge in the communities of culture and knowledge that form themselves along the extended and variegated curve. These communities and their communicative capacities must be strengthened, for in the digital knowledge society, it is precisely in such milieus that our cultural heritage will come to life.


The above is the inaugural address to the 2006 International Conference on the Digitisation of Cultural Heritage, delivered in Salzburg on June 21, 2006. It was originally published in German by Perlentaucher on June 28, 2006.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
lives and works in Frankfurt and Vienna as a consultant and journalist. He is founder of the Department of Applied Cultural Studies at the Donau Universität Krems in Austria, which he directed 1995 – 1997. Rüdiger Wischenbart provides consultancy support to cultural and industry institutions in Europe and the USA through his organisation Content and Consulting.

Translation: Ian Pepper. - let's talk european