How the Web Restores Civilization

By | 2013/01/05

There is no doubt that the Web is highly disruptive. Nicholas Carr thinks it is rotting our brains. David Weinberger, on the other hand, thinks it is fundamentally changing (for the better) they way we understand and develop knowledge. I think it is restoring civilization to its roots.

Ours is not a civilization built on books. Gutenberg’s invention was a watershed moment in the development of our civilization, but it did not mark an end or a beginning. Our civilization has its beginning in the temple of Jerusalem, the agora of Athens, and the senate of Rome. It began in places where the learned and influential met together and talked. It is not a civilization founded on recorded text, but on discourse.

As civilization expanded, as we came to have many temples, many agora, many seats of government, the discourse became fragmented. To continue to be one civilization, we had to invent means to extend discourse across our vast and growing distances.

The most significant of our inventions for this purpose was the book. The book allowed a discourse started in one place to be taken up in another place. Gutenberg enabled the mass production of books, and thus the ability to share discourse more fully with more people in more places. A civilization based on discourse became a civilization based on books.

But in distributing discourse, the book greatly decrease the pace of discourse. To write a book took years. To read a book, meditate upon it, and write another book in reply took more years. Increasingly, scholars labored in isolation on the preparation of books rather than engaging in active discourse with their peers. Universities provided local centers of learning and discourse, but because they gathered scholars of different disciplines together, discourse within a specialized field was still distributed and still conducted with books.

Because the period for preparing and exchanging books was so long, we got into the habit of prolonged solitary study, working to create a book that would survive criticism. The deep thought that Nicholas Carr so treasures, and so misses on the Web, was thought in isolation, thought building a book as a solitary and impregnable monument to, and fortification of, the product of a single mind. It was solitary and heroic thought, thought isolated from discourse. It was thought armed and barricaded against the assault of discourse. It was a style of thought out of character and out of sympathy with the habit of discourse on which our civilization was founded.

The Web does away with all that. It allows people from across the world who have never met and who never will meet to engage in real and immediate discourse. As an additional benefit, it also records that discourse, so that others can catch up and join in as and when they choose. The Web is a colloquium of the whole world. The Web restores civilization to its roots.


2 thoughts on “How the Web Restores Civilization

  1. Alex Knappe

    I have to disagree with all of the three opinions about the web.
    Sure, each of the points of view is completely viable, but each is also viewing the web only from one special angle. It is more than that. It is all of them. And even more.
    The Web became a cultural meta architecture, that allows for stupefying, turning for the better and going back to the roots of civilization altogether, at the same time.
    Actually, the web is the most complex organism that existed on earth until today. It’s much bigger than its individual parts. I like to compare it to a galaxy. There are parts that are new and busting of activity, new constellations are created, entropy is highly reduced and new organizational conglomerates are put in place. On the other side there is stability and consistence. And there’s also deflagration, disorganization and overall increase in entropy.
    While the invention of Guttenberg revolutionized our culture, the invention of the web was the creation of a whole new evolutionary step.
    The human brain is now no longer restricted to its own boundaries. The part that was accumulating knowledge is now able to outsource its knowledge or acquire knowledge it didn’t have before in a matter of seconds.
    My wife did ask me a question not long ago “what would you do if the web wasn’t there for some reason?”
    The answer may be frightening for some, but the truth is, without the web we would be back to the stone age.

  2. Myron Porter

    The web enables the best and worst of humanity in the same way that in isolated societies mavens and gossips did (and still do). It can ‘shrink’ the boundaries of distant localities, etc., but the speed, range and depth of impact is stunning. It reinforces civilization, for better or worse, and for the time being is a tremendous equalizer.

    However, I disagree that civilization is founded on discourse (alone). That is one aspect, but singleness of vision (as with books, leadership, religions, political movements, etc) has always been a counterbalance to discourse. Problems ensue when one works in exclusion to the other.

    My point? Both Carr and Weinberger have valid points. Discourse and deep thought are valid and essential to a healthy society. Neither is a panacea in isolation.


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