TOC Oedipus or information value made simple Your Turn
Once the bad news are out, it is again possible to be both an optimist and a realist. Newspapers are wont to print contributions about the impending death of their industry, the topic of a previous fillip (1/09/07). I am glad to see Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in his recent column (*) challenge the resulting excess of doom and gloom.

Readers may have noticed the op ed signed by R. Foster Winans a couple of weeks ago (**). More on this below but here is a timely reminder that "genuinely unique content" attracts readership. Indeed in its heyday Foster Winans's stock notes in the Wall Street Journal, "Heard on the Street", enjoyed market moving power. What prevents today's newspapers to continue to recruit and nurture star reporting talent and hopefully keep it honest?

I am less sanguine on how big a share newspapers can keep of the total advertising dollar. On Our Sea of information (see 3/13/07 fillip), content providers catch eyeballs secondhand after search engines (1). Rather than competing against them to become the Bigger Brother (see 7/25/06, 12/12/06 fillip), newspapers should take the opposite tack and sail towards real confidentiality. How better can one promote communities than by respecting their members in the first place? "The industry has only just begun to exploit the potential the internet provides for bringing those communities closer together". I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. There is much to be done to develop the right mix of trustworthy recommendations and services (see 12/05/06 fillip).

Whatever the solution, whatever the industry, the future will belong to the ones which reflect the true value of information. In my attempts to plumb the depth of Our Sea (see 2/13/07 fillip), I have highlighted the critical role played by time. This can hardly compare with the discovery of America. But while time and information are obviously linked, their relation is a bit complex. So indulge me as, landing in Greece, I turn to Oedipus's tale to teach us about it.

At Oedipus's birth Laius, his father, was warned he had bred trouble. Prophetic information, this category most vexing to receiver and provider alike, includes many patents and art products. At first apparent value is small and most receivers will discard it or use it half-heartedly. Instead of taking radical action, Laius abandoned his son to his fate and exposed it on a mountain side. Today large companies routinely toss away proffered information and leave it resourceless to the chance of competition. Without dictating their actions to economic agents, effective information laws ensure providers of slow growth information benefit from belated recognition.

Twenty years or so later, strangers to each other, Laius and Oedipus meet again and get gripped by road rage. Their mutual relationship is an example of secret information, whose instant value is very high to the target concerned. But how to realize the value when both transaction negotiation and fulfillment are fraught with issues? Blackmail comes to mind. In a market of one, values are difficult to assess and being first to act on fulfillment fatally weakens one's position. Not to mention that time is often of the essence. Had by chance a well meaning passerby shouted the secret, Laius might still have died under his son's blows. Effective information laws discourage secret information by rewarding its publication.

Next Oedipus confronted the Sphinx and her riddle: what creature has four legs in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening? Man what a good story! Content providers live by such public pleasing information hits. Hit values are high to begin with. By strangling defeated contestants, the Sphinx had engineered a marketing coup reality TV can only lust for. Hit tails can also be infinitely long as every newborn replenishes the audience. The riddle solved, the Sphinx dead from shame, flush with victory, Oedipus was ripe for falling victim of hubris. Both content providers and technology companies provide similar examples of unlimited and self-righteous aggrandizement. Effective information laws judiciously limit the total value information can extract from society overtime.

Oedipus Rex is such a hit, one of the great masterpieces of all times. At the peak of his power, Sophocles' Oedipus is a truth seeking sleuth, keen to protect his people from the deadly disease spreading through Thebes. We, the spectators, enjoy the tragedy precisely because we know how it ends while on the stage Oedipus acts unaware. The value of insider information differs from secret information in two ways. First a liquid market exists to assess and realize its value, second the secret holder knows the information is formally scheduled for publication. In Foster Winans' case and despite any judgment to the contrary, his insider's secret was, in advance of his readers, to know the notes the Wall Street Journal would print and their likely effect on public securities. He now claims everybody has insider's information. Of course, but only a few know it for a scheduled fact and trade on it ahead of the public. Effective information laws discourage those who trade on insiders' secrets.

Oedipus has succeeded in his quest. Here comes the old shepherd whose unwitting words unravel the whole truth. Parricide, incest, and by the King himself and with the Queen! Breaking news on the Royals indeed. UK tabloids lurid reporting pales in comparison. The value of such explosive information is as high as it is short-lived. Modern technology can propagate explosive information at very high speeds. Anuj Gangahar tells us that "'Millisecond' trading" has become a reality (***). According to Maija Palmer (****), a stolen US credit card number can be had for as little as $1 because the banking industry has dramatically decreased the window of opportunity for trading on the theft (2). Effective information laws encourage explosive information availability at the fastest speed possible.

Does YouTube carry clips of Oedipus Rex? Isn't this whole Oedipus myth a bit passť? I maintain Oedipus remains relevant.

Last December the Financial Times came down against one more extension to UK copyrights. Not surprisingly lesser known artists, such as Marcus Brierley (*****), protested their work deserved to be compensated in every possible way. So who is right? Ask Oedipus. Both are, he will answer. The current intellectual property laws are what is wrong. By dealing with information in the same way whether the recognition of its value is delayed or instantly popular, the laws act in reverse Robin Hood fashion and rob the poor to give to the rich. Perhaps leading newspapers could campaign for limiting creative rewards to some arbitrary values rather than protecting it for some arbitrary periods (see 2/20/07 fillip)?

Perhaps newspapers have a future as insightful opinion makers, whether on stocks or on information laws.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) The exaggerated reports of the death of the newspaper, by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - March 31, 2007
  • (**) Let Everyone Use What Wall Street Knows, by R. Foster Winans (New-York Times) - March 13, 2007
  • (***) 'Millisecond' trading arrives, by Anuj Gangahar (Financial Times) - March 19, 2007
  • (****) Internet offers new ID for $14, by Maija Palmer (Financial Times) - March 18, 2007
  • (*****) Letters To The Editor: Let me have my fair share of the proceeds, by Marcus Brierley (Financial Times) - December 12, 2007
  • (1) Dali would have known how to paint those millions of eyeballs bobbing into the sea. Some mixed metaphors are just too weird to ban.
  • (2) unfortunately there is another possible explanation for such a low price, i.e. oversupply in view of the ease of stealing card numbers.
April 2007
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