Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

A little-known researcher in Moscow’s Gorbachev Foundation has done the world an extraordinary favour when he smuggled secret 1980s Politburo papers out of Russia. Last week Pavel Stroilov published documents that revealed the leaders of the Western World were lying when they said they wanted a united Germany. Stroilov copied more than 1,000 transcripts of Politburo discussions before they were sealed off. Among the many astonishing details are a meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher where the British PM said he should pay no attention to Nato communiqués. The reality was that Britain and France (and presumably the US too) feared a united Germany even more than the red menace in Moscow. (picture: AP)

The Telegraph noted Thatcher herself alluded to the Moscow lie in her 1993 autobiography when she said she was “apprehensive” about the prospect of a united Germany. Spiked’s Marxist writer Mick Hume says the revelations should only be a shock to those who take “the anti-Soviet statements of Western leaders at face value.”

Hume points to a human failing: the tendency to believe what we see or hear. Information is a valuable commodity but a dangerous one too and it hardly surprising the Russians (like those in power in the West) place an embargo on sensitive government records until well after the events have taken place and the participants are either retired or dead. Now that this is in the public sphere it has changed from tacit to explicit knowledge. It can be taken from place to place, it can be internalised, and it can become personal knowledge. Knowledge transfer is a learning process and relies on wide dissemination of information.

It is the role of the world’s media to provide that information fully and fairly. As soon as an English translation is available, Stroilov’s thousand documents should be published in full either in print or online. But as the great 19th century journalist Lincoln Steffens found out, some information would never be printed. Steffens was idealistic but would never report on police brutality or political corruption because the complaints were coming from “faddists: co-operators, socialists (a few), anarchists, whom nobody would listen to.” By nobody, he meant his editors, wealthy readers and the city’s elite.

Arguments about what information should be in the public domain are complicated by the push to start charging for online content. The push goes against the grain of those who believe “information should be free”. Jeff Jarvis is one of the most strident voices against paying for content. He says it is costly, it impacts branding, there are other free sources and perhaps most important it takes “the content out of the conversation.” No one can talk about something they cannot see.

Jarvis is also a big fan of the power of Googlejuice and that company’s CEO has his own view of whether information is worth paying for. Eric Schmidt told a group of British broadcasting executives last week that general news publishers would find it hard to charge for their content online because too much free content is available. Schmidt agreed with the commonly-held opinion that the information had to have niche value such as business news to work.

People will pay for information they think is profitable. As American essay and programming language designer Paul Graham wrote this month, consumers never really paid for content and publishers never really sold it either. Graham says the price of books, music and movies depends mostly on the format and there is no additional charge for quality or quantity. The content is irrelevant. Selling information is a business distinct from publishing, says Graham. Those who can’t sell their content must give it away and make money indirectly or embody it in things people will pay for.

Graham says giving news away is the future of most current media. Those in the business are slow to accept this conclusion. Meanwhile it is giving every indication of a business in crisis. Newspaper jobs have fallen from more than 450,000 in 1990 to fewer than 300,000 today. Jarvis calls the media the first “post-industry.” But as communications theorist Dennis McQuail wrote, the Information Society so beloved of Jarvis has no core political purpose, just an inevitable logic of its own, with an ideological bias towards free market outcomes.

Stroilov’s documents don’t fall into the niche business content category. No-one is going to make money from knowing what went on in secret Kremlin meetings in 1989. But they contribute greatly to public knowledge about the mendacity of leaders, the problems of ideology and the course of history. Gorbachev and Thatcher were unable to stop the Berlin Wall from falling, and the West could not stop Germany from re-uniting. Despite such diversions that followed such as the Wars on Drugs and Terror, the fall of Communism would eventually reveal the West’s true preoccupation – making money.

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