Before the Gutenberg press, many wealthy families in Europe owned richly illustrated volumes that were displayed as works of art. After Gutenberg, many more families and institutions had books, but they were no longer treasured as museum pieces. Books had become a commodity.

So it is with the Internet. Content is a commodity driven by the simple rule of supply and demand. When content can be endlessly and cheaply duplicated, the value drops as supply increases, just as the value of those illustrated tomes fell as presses and book piracy became a booming business in medieval Europe. (Imagine how greatly literacy and learning would have been retarded if the book publishers of the day had been able to mount an anti-piracy campaign. But that’s another subject.)

This is the issue that major content providers fear--their magazines, books, tapes, and CDs will be copied and the value will drop. But it’s hard to see how the value does not drop. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Most revolutions have been fueled by the sudden availability of an initially inexpensive resource. The Industrial Revolution was fueled by cheap coal, American expansion by seemingly limitless forests, the twentieth century by low-cost petroleum products, and the PC boom by silicon chips that plunged in cost annually. The Internet is being driven by inexpensive content, at least by inexpensive static content, which is the resource of the moment.

What is not a commodity is interpretation. The initial view of the Internet was that the Web would dis-intermediate information, that is, the layers between the publishers and the content consumers would be eliminated. It just is not working this way, as information consumers of all kinds need help in picking which content to use and how to use it.

Trying to find your way through the raw content is much like going to an audio or video store and trying to pick a CD or video system without the help of a sales person. Unless you’re the kind of person who uses Consumer Reports or other expert resources to help limit your selection, you are likely to leave the store without making a decision. That’s what sales people do—they help limit the choices so the consumer is not overwhelmed.

Just so it is with Web content, whether used by consumers, professionals, or other business viewers: They need information that points the Internet travelers in directions that let them make the best use of the information, instead of having them drown in the pages of mind-numbingly similar results spewed out by search engines.

Advice is just as valuable as ever, if not more than ever. Maybe the Web’s new slogan should be “Re-intermediate now.”

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