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.
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.