George Walford: Editorial Notes (23)

Some of the addresses on our mailing list go back to 1979 without our having heard from the readers. They may have moved, they may have passed on from this ideology-ridden sphere to that great realm of free and pure thought in the sky. It is time to check.

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IC versus SP
A Written Debate between
George Walford
(Editor of Ideological Commentary)
the Socialist Party of Great Britain

22 pages A4, 68 pence post free (stamps welcome) Free to readers abroad You have read something of what we have to say about the (A-)SPGB; here is a rare opportunity to see how they reply.

READERS are invited to send letters for inclusion in our forthcoming Correspondence section. Following normal journalistic practice letters may be abbreviated; if you want yours to appear either in full or not at all, please say so. Should more letters be sent than we can print, priority will be given to those attacking IC or s.i. and, among those, to letters from the (A-)SPGB, its members or supporters. (We do not require that such letters be authenticated by a branch of the party).

READERS are also invited to send in details of meetings and other activities they would like announced in IC. We do not guarantee to include them (our irregular appearance means we may not appear in time), make no charge and reserve full freedom of comment. (See, for example, our remarks, below, on the activities of the English Language Society and the Institute for Social Inventions).

SYSTEMATIC ideology is one thing; Systematics is another. Systematics is one of the many theories we don’t know much about, but it seems to be a development of the observation that a triad has properties different from those of a pair, and so on up to a set of nine. There used to be a Journal of Systematics and this is to be re-established. We are in touch and shall report later.

THE PLASTIC SURGEON decorated his waiting room with portraits by Picasso.

The English Language Society and the Institute for Social Inventions recently ran, at Conway Hall, a joint exhibition entitled THE BURNING WORD. Each of these organisations offers scope for people wanting to take an active part in constructive social activities and the English Language Society holds meetings, some of them with poetry readings, which offer a refreshing change from political argument. (Perhaps the ISI does, too; it is of more recent foundation and we are not yet familiar with it).

But there is one activity being undertaken which we view with alarm – and, come to think of it, with despondency too. It appears, from the meeting which opened their exhibition, that these organisations together are actively promoting electronic publishing. We are not altogether clear about the meaning of the phrase and what follows is written subject to correction (any corrections sent in to IC will be reported to readers).

If we have understood “electronic publishing” correctly there are a number of organisations, some amateur, some professional, offering facilities which permit anybody wishing to publish anything to have their material entered in a data bank for a fairly small fee (perhaps without any fee with the amateurs – that is one thing we are not clear about) and it is then available for subscribers to the system to call up on their monitors or television screens. Presumably material thought to offend against the obscenity or libel laws would be rejected, but in principle there is no censorship and no selection. This is held to be the great advantage of the system; anybody can publish anything. And it is exactly this feature that alarms us.

Electronic publishing has a science-fiction air about it, and there is a principle formulated by a science-fiction writer which those promoting it would do well to remember. It is entitled, after its discoverer, Sturgeon’s Law, and it is this: NINETY PER CENT OF EVERYTHING IS CRAP.

Anybody with experience of publishing will know that, so far as writing submitted for publication is concerned, the only thing wrong with that law is that the figure ought to be nearer ninety-nine per cent. The great public service which publishers perform is not only publishing but also, and of equal importance, suppression of the unpublishable. As a result of their efforts we can pick up any piece of printed matter and know the chances are strongly in favour of its being of interest to some considerable number of people; any publisher whose products do not meet this condition will not be in business for long.

Electronic publishing seeks to circumvent this restriction. To the extent that it displaces orthodox publishing it will produce the effect that readers have to act as their own publishers, selecting, from the raw mass of material offered, what is likely to interest them. The promoters of the system will, doubtless say that they have no intention of displacing orthodox publishers, that their system will benefit all parties, but that is to be given as much weight as the claim of the SDP that their preference for a three-party system is a principle and not an entry-tactic. As a technology electronic publishing will stand or fall on its merits, and there may well be a useful function for it to perform. But it needs a selection process, or the few words that do in fact burn will be lost in the flood of worthless material from which present publishing methods now protect us.

English Language Society: Jeffrey Somers, Administrator, ELS, [address]
Institute for Social Inventions: [address]

from Ideological Commentary 23, July 1986.