In The Omnivore’s Dilema Michael Pollan reminds us that food is an inelastic good, which is to say that, obesity aside, there is a limit to how many calories a person can consume in a single day. Any more and we would explode.

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Once we all reach that caloric daily limit then the food industry can only grow at 1% (the average growth rate of the earth’s population). There is, after all, only so much food you can stuff down one person. The food industry got around this limitation by developing “foods” without any calories or fat – things like Coke Zero and potato chips made with Olean, which famously – so I’ve been told – causes anal leakage:

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[Hence the need for anal bleaching.]

Information is also an inelastic good. There is a limit to how much information the human brain can consume in a single day. Once we reach that limit we develop information obesity – or, information overload as it’s normally called – which leads to stress, guilt, and feelings of meaninglessness. We may ask ourselves what is the point of drinking a diet soda that our bodies do not need. And we might also ask ourselves, what is the use of consuming information at all, and how do we know if we need it or not?

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Information has always been a commodity. The greater the demand for information, and the more scarce that information is, the greater its value. The business model behind selling information has always been to function as a gatekeeper between the information and the access to that information. In relation to one another, information was scarce and demand was high.

That is, until all of the world’s information was made available in aggregate. Added to the “old media” are billions of contributions of information from sources that were previously excluded by the gatekeepers. Demand for information has stayed the same (after all, there is only so much the human brain can process per day) but the supply of information expands exponentially. (Kevin Kelly calls this phenomenon “the expansion of ignorance“.)

As information expands exponentially, the value of each individual piece of information declines exponentially. With the abundance of information comes the scarcity of attention. Value now lies not in information, but in its relevance: filtering, sorting, contextualizing that which “speaks to us”. Value is not in data but in eloquence.

There is, however, still one more gate between information and access to that information: language. If I were monolingual then I would only have access to a percentage of the world’s information available online. Let’s say, for example, that I wanted more information about Dao Lang, a Chinese pop star and the number one search term in China for 2005. Information about the singer in English is scant, but surely there are thousands of articles available in Chinese. If only I could request – and probably pay – someone to translate one of those articles into English.

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Conceptualizing a system to allow readers to request translations of content that interest them and to facilitate the process of that translation is the new job description for Marc Herman who is leading Global Voices’ translation exchange.

I am skeptical of the project, but it’s the type of skepticism that I hope is proven wrong. The most obvious question is, how do I know that I want to read something if I don’t know what it says? And, more importantly, why would I invest time and money requesting more information with less context when my hard drive is already brimming over with unread articles, unwatched movies, and un-listened-to podcasts?

To make such an investment I would need a pretty strong connection to Dao Lang, the Chinese pop singer. And if such a strong connection existed, wouldn’t that inspire me to learn Chinese, or to meet fellow Dao Lang fans who could provide me with the context I’m looking for?

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We consume information as much for our social needs as our need to be informed. In fact, I’m not sure you can even distinguish the two. We don’t really care about Mark Sanford and his affair, but we read about it because the collective awareness about the case allows us to participate in conversations about the values and issues that underlie it. When I was in Argentina 80% of the news I read was about Argentina and the region because it allowed me to engage in conversations with those around me. Now that I’m in The Hague I’m following related news. Our social interactions define the information we consume much more than the other way around.

Social translation is here to stay, but the key is that it is social. Lena translated my post about Cochabamba as a gesture of friendship. Once money is inserted into the equation it becomes something else.

A lot of communities and tools have sprung up in recent years trying to make the translation market more efficient by cutting out wasteful middleman agencies like Lionbridge. Among others are Social Translator, dotSUB, Worldwide Lexicon, and iCanLocalize. Some companies like Facebook and LinkedIn have flirted with crowdsourcing the localization of their websites, but the lesson tends to be that volunteer translators don’t feel very social toward for-profit companies. There will always be a demand for translated information, but those translations will still have to compete in a world of over-abundant information and starved attention.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the supply and demand of information these days. A couple months ago I walked into El Ateneo, one of the world’s largest bookstores, to meet up with my buddy Scott. As I looked around at the mountains upon mountains of hardcovers, paperbacks, magazines, and newspapers I was hit by a kind of intellectual vertigo. On the one hand, here is humanity’s greatest accomplishment: culture, the ability to transmit knowledge, stories, and values from one generation to the next to eternity. On the other hand, with sadness and frustration I realized that in my life I would only come into contact with a small percentage of that culture. And that with each new year – and the exponential expansion of information – I would come into contact with a smaller and smaller percentage. The expansion of ignorance is inevitable.

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