The Web Leaves You Smarter, But Feeling Dumber

By | 2013/04/29

Is the Web making us smarter or dumber? Kath McNiff sums up the dilemma beautifully:

I fear that the web is not making me smarter. It’s distressing my synapses and dumbing me down. Not because the content is junk but because there is too much good stuff. Amazing material at my finger tips – TED talks, zeitgeisty blogs, beautiful pins and seriously meaty journal articles.

It’s the “too much good stuff” that is the problem. (The emphasis is Kath’s, not mine.) Feeling smart is not so much about having knowledge, as it is about feeling like you are in command of a subject. Read a book and you can really feel like you understand the subject matter. You feel smart.

The Web makes you smarter, but it can also make you feel dumber. Photo by Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

The Web makes you smarter, but it can also make you feel dumber. Photo by Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

But you’re not. The book has lulled you into a false sense of mastery. The author has made the subject into a closed little world and wrapped it up in a nice little bundle that seems whole and balanced and satisfying.

But it’s hogwash. There is so much more to know. The book that made you feel smart has barely scratched the surface. In fact, it has done less than that; it has created an immaculate false surface that holds the illusion the subject has been covered in a full and balanced fashion. It has made you feel smart, but it has actually made you dumb.

As David Weinberger observes in Too Big to Know, the enterprise of book writing was very much about sweeping the loose ends under the rug and locking the mad cousin in the attic.

Expertise preferred to speak in a single voice. Books have authors and editors who ensure the content is self-consistent. Even anthologies have editors who ensure that there is appropriate consistency among the contributors, at least in terms of content and tone. Experts, too, have been self-consistent; they get embarrassed if caught contradicting themselves.

The Web creates no such illusion. There is so much good stuff. It makes the subject feel endless. And there are so many contradictions and so many points of view. It makes it seem like nothing is settled or agreed upon. As Weinberger observes:

Networked expertise is more like a raucous market of ideas, knowledge, and authority.

It makes you feel small and overwhelmed. It makes you feel dumb. But it is not actually making you dumb. It is making you smart. Because the subject you are researching really is endless, and there really are endless contradictory viewpoints and opinions. Smart people recognize this. The Web, in other words, is slapping us upside the head with the Socratic Paradox.

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do.

It is easy enough to conclude, as Nicholas Carr does in The Shallows, that the Web is essentially wrecking the edifice of thought and culture that we have built on the book. But that is to enthrone the book as the natural paragon of knowledge and wisdom, a role it does not deserve. As Weinberger points out, the book is a specific technology shaped by the particular limits of paper production and distribution, which has in turn shaped our idea of what knowledge is:

Because of the economics of paper, facts were relatively rare and gem-like because there wasn’t room for a whole lot of them. Because of the physics of paper, once a fact was printed, it stayed there on the page, uncontradicted, at least on that page. The limitations of paper made facts look far more manageable than they seem now that we see them linked into our unlimited network. …

Books get to speak once. After they’re published, it’s expensive for the authors to change their minds. So, books try to nail things down. …

We have had to resort to this sort of play-acting not because that’s how thought should work but because books fix thoughts on paper. We’ve had to build a long sequence of thoughts, one leading to another, because books put one page after another. Long-form thinking looks the way it does because books shaped it that way. And because books have been knowledge’s medium, we have thought that that’s how knowledge should be shaped.

The Web then, is shattering an illusion of the certainty and fixedness of knowledge, and, in so doing, and in opening up to us the full “too big to know” nature of the world, it is making us actually much smarter while making us feel much dumber. Indeed, it is because we feel dumber that we are smarter. We feel smaller not because we have shrunk, nor because the world has grown, but because we can better see how big it has always been. We were always this small. Now we know it.

But feeling dumber can be a problem too. Apart from not being a nice feeling, it can inhibit us from acting. Back in the days when books created the illusion of fixed, certain, and bounded knowledge, we could act on that knowledge with confidence. That confidence was unwarranted, but acting with unwarranted confidence has nevertheless led to great achievement. Weinberger again:

Our system of knowledge is a clever adaptation to the fact that our environment is too big to be known by any one person. A species that gets answers and can then stop asking is able to free itself for new inquiries. It will build pyramids and eventually large hadron colliders and Oreos. This strategy is perfectly adapted to paper-based knowledge. Books are designed to contain all the information required to stop inquiries within the book’s topic. But now that our medium can handle far more ideas and information, and now that it is a connective medium (ideas to ideas, people to ideas, people to people), our strategy is changing. And that is changing the very shape of knowledge.

Life has always been about making decisions and taking action without adequate information. The false certainties of the book world helped us believe we were deciding and acting with better information than we really had, but that assurance may have made us bold enough to act, and to accomplish.

Now that the Web is making us smarter, and making us feel dumber, we are going to have to learn to be a little braver about how we make decisions and act on them. We may actually be acting based on more and better information, but we will also be acting with a much greater awareness of how much we don’t know.

Part of that may be that we have to create a discipline to cut off our research so that we don’t lose the time or the will to act in the endless sea of things too big to know. Kath McNiff’s curation maps may be a good device for doing that.

In the meantime, I am writing a book, Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web, to be published this fall by XML Press. It will make you feel very smart. I promise.

17 thoughts on “The Web Leaves You Smarter, But Feeling Dumber

  1. Kath McNiff

    “We were always this small. Now we know it” – classic.
    Thanks for this thoughtful piece Mark – you unpacked my dilemma and really hit the nail on the head. Books are not the experts they claim to be and neither are diplomas or degrees. There is always so much more to know – in all kinds of formats. You’re absolutely right – I AM dumber and smarter at the same time. But more importantly – how did you manage to find a photo featuring a graduate and a dunce?! Nice.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Kath. Thanks for the comment. I simply searched Wikimedia Commons for “Dunce’s cap” and there is was.

  2. Rachel McAlpine

    I appreciate the depth and originality of this post (and your others). Can’t wait to read “Every page is page one.”

  3. Nathalie Laroche

    Thanks for this excellent post! I often have this overwhelming feeling that there is so much out there to learn and understand, how will I ever manage to know enough? Now I can understand this feeling better, and instead of being overwhelmed, I can be motivated by it.

    Looking forward to your book and your presentation at STC13!

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks, Nathalie. I think there is one sense, at least, in which the Web can help us overcome perfection paralysis — by making us more aware of the unattainability of perfection or perfect knowledge.

  4. Alex Knappe

    Spot on, as always. This one is really a classic in the discussion about the use of the web.
    And it sheds also a bright light on the nature of human behavior. “Screen or it didn’t happen”, “Where is this written?” – both expressions tell you that people only tend to believe what they see black on white. It may be a subject so far from reality, but if it is written down on paper, it has to be true.
    Same goes for expertise as Kath mentions. If you haven’t got it on paper (in form of a diploma), you can’t be an expert.
    But in the end, we are all just cooking with water.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Alex. It is interesting, isn’t it, the extent to which a book gains authority by quoting other books. Why does a book become more authoritative by being referred to at second hand?

      One of the things that Weinberger points out is that people are now increasingly demanding direct access to the data, rather than accepting the author’s conclusions as authoritative. Evidence that our systems of authorities from the paper world was more an artifact of the economics of paper than a truly intellectual discipline.

  5. K.Vee.Shanker.

    Hi Mark,
    Excellent! I’ve always enjoyed your articles. I wonder, how on earth, you could throw new thoughts continually!

    And, about ‘doing’ after reading on net is far more difficult than the ‘book only’ era. Then, you don’t see much of contradictory arguments. Changes were rather slow. But, on net – it is never so. Additionally, the new ideas on anything emerge almost on a daily basis.

    So, can any one confidently act out an idea at any point of time?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment K.Vee.

      I think it has always been the case that most of us act without all of the available information. Our need to act is urgent, and our ability to learn is slow. The Web makes learning somewhat faster, by removing physical barriers to knowledge, but it also reveals the impossibility of learning everything before acting.

  6. Dwight

    So spot-on, Mark. Thanks. The web makes me feel smart, because I can rattle off interesting tidbits I’ve picked up online, but dumb because I’m more aware than ever that I don’t know what I’m talking about. The good thing though, as you say, is that I can’t hide from the fact. A book, on the other hand, might offer me a false sense of “knowing”.

    But I also agree that this self-awareness has its drawbacks.
    We’d rather admit ignorance than risk being arrogant. While
    that’s generally a good thing, because many terrible things have been done out of arrogance, these attempts at super-human humility work against us. We’re more tentative than ever about making mistakes. We take interest in studies that validate things we think and feel, because trusting our own inner processes may be arrogant. And so now we can’t look away from any truths discovered about us, some of which seem to do little good. For example, it’s been supposedly discovered that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to fully master a skill. But what good does that knowledge do us? I’m sure there’s a difference in the results of 10,000 incidental hours spent learning a skill and 10,000 deliberate, self-conscious hours doing so.

    I suppose this is an adjustment period we’ll need to go through before we can cautiously allow ourselves to be a little flawed.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Dwight.

      I suppose we could look on confirmation bias (the tendency to give more weight to information that supports our current position) as a survival mechanism. I helps us to get to action, when otherwise we might be paralyzed between competing viewpoints.

      1. Dwight

        Good point. I guess it’s an irony inherent in our nature– if we want to improve, we need to have flaws.

  7. Hana

    Loved this article. Can hardly wait to read your book. Thanks!

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