Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

Donít dream it, Google it

Dr Feelgood on Top of the Pops 1970
Sites like Amazon and iTunes can give old music a second lease of life

Regular columnist Bill Thompson on how he loves being able to explore his past online.

I'm an easily distracted person, as anyone who's ever had the misfortune to talk to me at a party will agree. It's not that I'm not interested in what someone is saying, and I do pay attention, but I have a tendency to scan the room and tune in to other conversations from time to time.

It's even worse when I'm sitting at my computer on a Sunday evening trying to write an article, do my tax return, or simply make sense of the long list of things to be done in the coming week.

Marx could work for weeks in the Reading Room of the British Library with only the tea room and perhaps an occasional fellow writer to distract him, but working on an internet-connected computer is a challenge for anyone trying to focus on the job at hand.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx spent weeks writing in the British Libary

Cory Doctorow, well-known as a science fiction writer, prolific blogger, and campaigner for civil liberties, talks about "writing in the age of distraction" in a great article in Locus magazine.

He points out that "realtime communications tools are deadly. The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, e-mail alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention".

Cory is, of course, absolutely right.

But he is a man with the discipline needed to write rich narratives like his phenomenally successful novel "Little Brother", aimed at teenagers but essential reading for anyone concerned with freedom in the database world, and to manage the vast number of submissions that come in every day to BoingBoing, where he is one of the editors.

Tempting times

Like many others, I'm rather less focused. Sometimes I manage to concentrate on the task in hand, and I can spend hours in libraries or cafes, tuning out distractions to focus on an article, essay, or presentation, oblivious to offline (or online) temptation.

But most of the time I tend to do things differently, skipping between my word processor, various websites in the many different tabs I have open in the two different browsers usually active on my desktop, along with the odd Skype chat, Google talk conversation, Facebook update, Friendfeed stream and - of course, regular Twitter updates.

Every now and then I'll find 10 minutes to pay attention to the project I'm supposed to be making progress on, although the temptation to respond to someone else's comment, put a picture online, catch up with the latest blog entries from my friends, or just watch the real-time status updates flow through on Friendfeed is often too much.

Bill Thompson
The ease of access to previously unavailable resources is clearly one of the most important characteristics of the emerging network society
Bill Thompson
Being distracted by other people's blog posts, comments and references is bad enough, but the continued digitisation of previously analogue resources, coupled with the capabilities of the major search engines, is making it even harder to stay focused when online, because it's just too easy to start off down a path of exploration that ends up watching yet another Downfall mashup at 3am.

Yet despite the damage it may be doing to my productivity, the ease of access to previously unavailable resources is clearly one of the most important characteristics of the emerging network society.

I first noticed this back in 2004, when I was walking down the street humming Transvision Vamp's "Baby I Don't Care" and realised that I had it on my iPod, so could listen to the original instead of trying to remember how it went.

It was, I said at the time, an example of "serenpodity", serendipity in the digital age.

The vast information resources available online over home broadband, pervasive wi-fi and even 3G phone networks make the 40GB worth of songs I could carry around in 2004 look rather pitiful. These days I can have access to the the world's digital repositories when I want it, and where I want it.

Archive heaven

This was brought home to me very clearly at the weekend.

Over the last few weeks I've been buying some old music that I used to own on vinyl, but never acquired on CD - bands like Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods - good solid pre-punk guitar music, well-suited to a man of my age.

Last night I hit Amazon's MP3 site and bought myself John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett's eponymous album, just so I could listen to "Cheryl's Going Home".

Andy Pandy
Before the likes of YouTube, watching vintage TV was almost impossible.

Of course, I had to share this with my online friends, and this prompted one of them to comment that my regression would quickly lead to a desire for Andy Pandy, the children's puppet show from the 50s and 60s.

It took less than a minute to find a suitable clip on YouTube and post a link, prompting yet more nostalgic reminiscence online and another good excuse to avoid work.

In our information saturated age, it is increasingly likely that if you can remember something, you can find it online. One of my favourite scenes from The Rocky Horror Show is when Frank N Furter tells us "Don't Dream It - Be It", but these days it should be "Don't dream it, Google it", and then have it delivered over a fast internet connection.

We're some way off from having full and easy access to the entire analogue past on our digital networks, and I could only see Andy Pandy because someone had gone to the effort to capture and upload the titles from an old programme, in defiance of copyright restrictions.

But things are changing. There's the Internet Archive, a fabulous resource for all net users, and the British Library is working hard to ensure that today's websites are archived for future generations.

The work currently going on to digitise the entire BBC Archive will make a big difference, not just because there are around a million hours worth of audio and video material to go online but because the BBC can set standards for the whole process and ensure that as other major resources go online, they do so in a way that will be integrated with what has gone before.

It may not be long before the entire record of human achievement is available on demand, indexed, and catalogued according to open standards that anyone can use.

And then I'll never get any work done.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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