Nick Carr has a talent for stirring debate. I’ve been drawn in to such debates in the past and, once again, I find that I cannot resist. This time, in an article in The Atlantic, suggesting that the Internet might be making us stupid, Nick set off a firestorm of debate and discussion in the blogosphere as the digerati piled on in defense of the Internet. Some of the best responses (including some rejoinders by Nick) are available at the Edge and the Brittanica blog. But what was not said was often more interesting than what was said.
As might be expected, much of the debate focused on Nick’s core contention: the Internet is subtly molding our minds to favor brief snippets of information rather than the nuance and complexity that can only be communicated in much longer forms such as books.
Content became the battleground. Are snippets superior to more in depth writing and analysis? Some came to the defense of books while a surprising (to me) number of participants celebrated the passing of books from our consciousness – especially since many of the latter had written books themselves. Those who came to the defense of books then divided into two camps - those who agreed that books were endangered by the Internet and those who took a more optimistic view of the ability of earlier generations of media to co-exist with newer forms.
But two things were common across much of the debate. First, it centered on content. Second, it took the Internet in its current form as a given. Perhaps it is time to challenge both of those assumptions and re-frame the debate.
Is content all there is?
To be fair, Nick is primarily concerned about the impact of the Internet on our reading habits. This is to be expected from someone who is a fine editor (having worked with him) and author. But it is an interesting sleight of hand that Nick performs very early in his article: “I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.” Thinking collapses to reading and then the rest of the article focuses on our reading habits. This sets up the debate about content – short vs. long.
But if the concern is about intelligence, thinking and the mind, then isn’t content just one small piece of the puzzle? Nick and many of the digerati who line up against Nick have one thing in common – they are content junkies. They consume content voraciously and care deeply about the form that content takes.
In the heat of debate, they seemed to often lose sight of the fact that most people are not content junkies. Most people use the Internet as a platform to connect with each other. Sure, they are exchanging information with each other, but they are doing a lot more than that. They are learning about each other. They are finding ways to build relationships that expand their understanding of the world and enhance their ability to succeed in their professions and personal lives.
Now, there’s certainly a lot to debate about the impact of the Internet on this level as well. Are virtual relationships shallower than face to face relationships? Do virtual relationships enrich or detract from face to face relationships? What is the trade-off between quantity and quality in relationships? To what extent can virtual relationships support the communication of tacit knowledge? Do we seek out virtual relationships that merely reinforce our existing points of view or that expand our perspectives?
But it is interesting that very few sought to expand the terms of debate to address these questions. Yet, if the debate is really about the impact of the Internet on intelligence, aren’t these just as important, if not far more important, than narrow debates about the forms that content will take?
Where is the Internet headed?
The debate also largely took the Internet, and specifically the World Wide Web, in its current form as a given. This is a dangerous assumption given the speed of change in the underlying technology foundations of the Internet.
As one small example, we are seeing rapid evolution of both social network platforms and physical presence tools that will lead to a much more complex interweaving of physical and virtual environments. Sensors and imaging tools will give us much greater visibility into the world around us.
Today, navigation on the Internet is heavily shaped by search tools – but these search tools are geared to locating (surprise!) content. We are just now beginning to see tools emerge to help us find people and more effectively learn who they are.
We are also at the earliest stages of figuring out how to create environments that enhance serendipity and make visible the relationships and patterns that today lurk behind the cascade of events and snippets of information. The World Wide Web that was designed by content junkies for content junkies to more rapidly locate more snippets of content is already giving way to much richer platforms that will help people to connect with each other and engage together in sustained efforts to create new knowledge.
Tacit knowledge – that which cannot be readily expressed in published content of any length, whether snippets or books – has always been our most valuable knowledge. You can read all the books you want on brain surgery, but that alone will never qualify you to perform brain surgery. At an even simpler level, no book can teach you how to ride a bicycle.
The ultimate impact of the Internet on our intelligence will hinge on its ability to support the creation and sharing of tacit knowledge. Again, we are at the earliest stages of tapping into this potential.
Stories offer potential to communicate some elements of tacit knowledge. They help to provide enough of a sense of context to reconstruct and extend parts of the tacit. Stories, properly told to communicate the richness of context, do not reduce to snippets.
In the end, though, tacit knowledge will only flow through shared practice and the deep relationships that build up around shared practice. Some examples of shared practice can already be found on the Internet in such diverse arenas as open source software and online games like World of Warcraft. This is one more area that the Internet will likely evolve to support much more effectively in the years ahead.
Snippets versus books?
OK, so maybe it is unfair to change the terms of the debate. Maybe we should just take Nick on the terms that he has defined for the debate. If it is about content, will snippets trump books and will we all be dumber for it? As someone who has never mastered the art of the snippet, let me proudly count myself as one who still sees profound value in the long form where texture and nuance can be teased out and explored.
But let me also align myself with those like David Brin who bridle at the zero sum nature of the debate. It makes for good copy to proclaim that the book is dead or that snippets rule. But the truth as always is in that textured middle. Snippets of information, loosely coupled, have enormous value in enhancing peripheral awareness and provoking new ideas.
At the same time, snippets of information alone are deeply dangerous. They distract us with never-ending waves of surface events, spreading us ever thinner and obscuring the deeper structures and dynamics that ultimately are shaping these surface events. Those of us who stay only on the surface, swimming in a sea of snippets, will ultimately lose sight of land.
We need books, or whatever the digital long forms of content are that will replace the book, to help us penetrate the surface and explore the deeper structures and dynamics that make sense of the changes around us.
Rushkoff is right – we need to develop a better understanding of the strengths and limitations of each medium available to us and find the right mix to give us the greatest insight. Larry Sanger also makes an important point – Nick is adopting a technological determinist view, ignoring the fact that we each have a choice in terms of what media we use. I, for one, will continue to buy and read (and occasionally write) books while still actively surfing the Net.
Evolution favors those who can make sense out of evolving landscapes. Those who figure out how to navigate both media worlds will tend to survive and thrive relative to those who either abandon books or ignore the power of loosely coupled information.