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Monday, September 18, 2006

All the News That's Fit to Filter

Andrew Leonard at Salon:

Filter proliferation, by Andrew Leonard, Salon: On Friday, Brad DeLong, the economic historian at UC Berkeley who pioneered the art of econoblogging, confessed that it was after lunch and he hadn't yet read the Wall Street Journal. Instead, he was using Mark Thoma at Economist's View and Felix Salmon at Econoblogger "as economic news preprocessors."

Thoma and Salmon, like DeLong, are prolific bloggers. Line up enough of these preprocessors in your blog aggregator, as I do, and you get the benefit of a bevy of smart people filtering the critical news of the day -- and then deconstructing, critiquing, and otherwise adding value to that information. What would once have required taking an article from the Wall Street Journal or New York Times or Financial Times into a graduate level seminar and having it taken apart by a professor and a few other bright students is now available, in infinitely greater scope and detail, for free, on every subject of interest to humanity. For my own project here -- striving to better understand globalization -- the ongoing assembly of rank upon rank of preprocessors on a network of related subjects: the economy, China, India, energy and the environment and intellectual property, has become a vital part of my daily explorations. In the age of information overload, tweaking your filters is job number one.

Resisting the impulse to endlessly engage in filter accretion -- and the consequent ... information overload -- requires no shortage of willpower. Today I added A Fistful of Euros, a group blog devoted to the European economy, and Taiwan/China Theory/Future, a thoughtful and idiosyncratic take on my favorite part of East Asia by academic Mark Harrison. And yet, even as I was plugging their RSS feeds into my aggregator I was quailing at how many new items had popped up, ready for my perusal, over the weekend. Enter blog-guilt ... the uneasy sensation one gets when one falls behind on one's filters. What am I missing? How far behind in the "conversation" have I fallen?

But there is a flip side to this soul-killing overload, an advantage to oversubscription, a happy serendipity inherent in the accumulation of more preprocessors than the brain can adequately process.

Long speeches by central bankers are not a regular part of my daily reading list. So I'll cop to skipping over the first couple of mentions of a speech Friday by New York Federal Reserve Bank president Timothy Geithner on hedge fund and derivative regulation. But by the third or fourth mention -- by the time that the econobloggers had started comparing the press coverage of the speech, and were pointing to each other's summaries and cut-and-pastes, the sheer number of mentions were themselves a clear signal that this was something I should pay attention to. Out of the cacophony of a hundred filters blooming, a mandate rings through, clear and true.

So I read it. ... Geithner acknowledges that the explosion, over the past ten years, of hedge fund trading in exotic financial instruments may well have contributed to the general resilience that the U.S. (and global) financial system has demonstrated... And yet he surmises at the same time that the very flexibility of the current system may actually make it more vulnerable to a really, really big shock. ...

That's a subtle argument, and we're not going to know whether it holds water until the flood is already five feet high and rising. Naturally, given my own fixations, the first thing that came to my mind was yesterday's editorial in the New York Times worrying about the proliferation of mortgage-backed securities... We'll watch and see, and learn some more from the near instantaneous critiques of the editorial that have already appeared in the blogosphere. And maybe see if we can dig up some preprocessors who focus explicitly on derivatives...

Too much information, or not enough? Too many pre-processors, or not enough? Too hot, too cold, or just right? Too much tweaking the filters, at the expense of actual learning? People worry whether the traditional practice of journalistic newsgathering will be undermined by all these parasitical bloggers delivering content to people for free. But all I see right now is more people gathering more information and redistributing it than ever before. I guess I'll believe there is a problem to worry about in that domain when my filters start to dry up and I wake up one day having caught up with all the news.

I should note that I've been reading Andrew for awhile and he's a skilled "pre-processor" himself. His "post-processing" is worth keeping track of as well.

When I first started blogging, I would worry about posting things that other people had posted. I still hesitate, especially when it's a mere echo without much value added. But as noted and reinforced above, though it risks being redundant and at times adds little new information, echoing posts also sends a signal about the importance of the topic. However, in this particular case the echo of Andrew's post is admittedly a bit self-serving. I hope you won't mind too much.

    Posted by on Monday, September 18, 2006 at 04:05 PM in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (4)


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