Is there a technological cure for being boring?

I'm at the fall meeting of ASIDIC, a group of librarians and information indexers, and they are talking technology. It's the content, folks.

This morning, I was listening to a group of people worrying that their business is going away. They create and own or license lots of data stored in databases and want to continue making money. Thing is, they are talking about technology and not the information and wisdom in the data they want to sell. Technology will not save boring information.

"What Google is doing is not federated search," said Peter Noerr, CTO of Muse Global, as the Association of Information and Dissemination Centers (ASIDIC) meeting began this morning, of Google's recently announced Google News Archive Search. He was aiming to demonstrate the value of federated search in the face of massively parallel ubiquitous crawlers emanating from the Googleplex.

"If Google makes your information more accessible, you should be happy," replied Jerome Pesenti, chief scientist of Vivisimo. "[Publishers] say 'I own the content so people have to come to me,' but if the information isn't available through federated search and search engines like Google and Yahoo, they [people who buy information] aren't going to find your data."

Exposure is good, I suppose, but the real problem is how to make information relevant. Federated search, regardless of how many databases you aggregate, is only relevant when it provides users the ability to come to informed judgments, not just when it serves up the latest answer to contemporary questions. Old wine in new bottles can create new value, but there's a lot of bad old wine trying to pass as rare vintages.

Some people come to data with a solid idea of what they want, such as an answer to a question. Most folks need to learn a little bit, exercise a bit of judgment and come to a conclusion about the information they can get; fast access is important, but fast is of sole importance only to the lazy searcher. Seriously, when you want to make a decision are you looking for simple answers or seeking to think? I'd bet the majority of people like to, at least, think when they are thinking rather than just swallowing the first satisfying data bait that comes along.

Not only have most publishers passed from the paper era, through the microfilm/fiche era, the CD-based data era and the first 12 years of a commercial World Wide Web, many of them make much more money today than 20 years ago. Yet older companies have worried about the technology they've been using and missed interesting opportunities to invest in new knowledge creation and, particularly, the people to create novel insight, while there are also thousands of new commercial publishers and millions of personal publishers in the market today who are not thinking about technology, like federated search, as a life boat.

For these "innovators," the new tools amplify their presence in the market, and they've amplified small investments in breakthrough insights and entertainment. They start with excitement and attitude, knowledge and engaging information that's relevant to an identifiable audience. Media companies build on content, living and dying on the freshness, relevance and contextuality of what they made each day instead of just milking old text and programming.

For a lot of data indexers, the cow is getting too old to milk without a fresh injection of human ingenuity. 

The mistake we humans constantly make is to worry about our existing investments rather than looking to the next, new investment and the rewards of those risks. We get more conservative the more successful we become, I suppose, but that's a retirement strategy not a way to grow a media business.

Publishers and database providers should be asking what made the content they sold valuable before and realizing that, maybe, if they aren't investing in content--including by integrating social bookmarking and tagging, peer-review and other processes for grading the quality of information--they are simply trying to turn their dinosaur data into some kind of new oil, black gold.

"There is no viable reason in the world, aside from sheer hubris, for a publication to own its own CMS, metrics, and ad servers," David Churbuck, former journalist (Forbes.com) and current VP of Worldwide Web Marketing for Lenovo, wrote last week on his blog. The fact is the content management system is last thing that makes "content" interesting.

So, here's my answer to the question ASIDIC is trying to answer here today: Invest in people who make information, because they create new knowledge and recontextualize old data for use in new situations. They create new value and revitalize fading value in static information by wrapping it in new stories. Talent is generative, content can only be repurposed for so long before it loses its value when there's no people adding new context. Relevance is a man-made product.