Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

You're welcome.

Back in April, I gave Britannica Blog some advice: stop hiring pundits to write pithy overviews, and start hiring world-class experts to write about knowledge itself. ("Britannica Blog is too caught up in conventional notions of what a blog should be; in order to be a really great blog, it needs to become more Britannica-like -- which is to say, more concerned with the large-scale structure of knowledge.")

Head Brittannica Blogger Bob McHenry (former Britannica editor-in-chief) stopped by to tell me I was wrong.

Since then, nothing's changed: there still aren't any Brit. Blog posts by experts, or posts about the one topic that Britannica can talk about with supreme authority: the way that knowledge is created and understood.

Just kidding! Clay Shirky (uber-digeratus), Nicholas Carr (ex-editor of the Harvard Business Review), Matthew Battles (senior editor at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), and Michael Gorman (library scholar extraordinaire) are all talking about how the web influences knowledge.

It's sharp, exciting, well-written stuff. (And I disagree with almost all of it: duh.)

In particular, I was blown away by Nicholas Carr -- Carr, whose name brought to mind a hundred superficial screeds against Wikipedia, and who took advantage of B. Blog's scholarly atmosphere to relax and (finally) write a great fucking article. Here: From Contemplative Man to Flickering Man. Why isn't more of this stuff on Rough Type? :

Contemplative Man, the fellow who came to understand the world sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, is a goner. He’s being succeeded by Flickering Man, the fellow who darts from link to link, conjuring the world out of continually refreshed arrays of isolate pixels, shadows of shadows. The linearity of reason is blurring into the nonlinearity of impression; after five centuries of wakefulness, we’re lapsing into a dream state. Here comes everybody, indeed.

What’s happening here isn’t about amateurs and professionals. George Washington was an amateur politician. Charles Darwin was an amateur scientist. Wallace Stevens was an amateur poet. Talent cannot be classified; it’s an individual trait. What’s happening here isn’t even really about expertise or its absence. The decisive factor is not how we produce intellectual works but how we consume them. When Gorman says we must cherish “the individual scholar, author, and creator of knowledge,” I can wholeheartedly agree (as most people would) and still believe that he’s missing the point. The millions of people who consult Wikipedia every day are not pursuing any kind of anti-expert or anti-scholar agenda. Their interest is practical, not ideological. They go to Wikipedia because it’s free and convenient. They know its quality and reliability are imperfect, but that’s a tradeoff they’re willing to make as they hurriedly fill their market baskets with information. It’s our mode of consumption that is going to shape our intellectual lives and even, in time, our intellects. And that mode is shifting, rapidly and inexorably, from page to web.

George Dyson, in his book Darwin Among the Machines, quotes the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane: "Evolution will take its course. And that course has generally been downward. The majority of species have degenerated and become extinct, or, what is perhaps worse, gradually lost many of their functions. The ancestors of oysters and barnacles had heads. Snakes have lost their limbs and ostriches and penguins their power of flight. Man may just as easily lose his intelligence." The automation of physical labor did not make our muscles bigger. Are we to assume that the automation of mental labor will make our brains smarter?

Naturally, I take complete credit.

1 comment:

llywrch said...

Well at least they moved away from that cliched & misleading simile where intellectual elite vs. Wikipedia is allegedly the same as Luddites vs. weaving mills. (The Luddite issue, just like Watts' connection with the steam engine, was more complex than the simile makes it out to be.)