Made smarter by the internet?

08.06.10 | 1 Comment

Over the week­end there was a fas­cin­at­ing exchange of view­points in the Wall Street Journal tak­ing oppos­ing sides of the argu­ment as to what effect the inter­net is hav­ing on us: is it mak­ing us smarter and better-informed, or more shal­low and un-disciplined com­pared to our book-reading days? Per­haps more import­antly. is there any­thing we can do to lever­age the inter­net to pro­mote smart­ness more effectively?

Clay Shirky’s art­icle takes the pos­it­iv­ist approach, arguing that amid the spam and the videos of people trip­ping over chairs are the begin­nings of a new media cul­ture that’s attuned to writ­ing for a non-linear, mul­ti­me­dia exper­i­ence. Opposed to this is Nich­olas Carr’s view that the inter­net is opposed to the “still­ness” that books encour­age, and that the men­tal dis­cip­line that attends read­ing is of value in itself.

This is a crit­ical (indeed, per­haps the crit­ical) cul­tural argu­ment over the “con­tent revolu­tion” that we’re cur­rently in the middle of. As a com­puter sci­ent­ist with a deep interest in writ­ing and lit­er­at­ure, I find it fas­cin­at­ing that com­puters are at the fore­front of a soci­etal change, just as they’re at the fore­front of sci­entific change. I think we can both cri­tique the points made by both authors, and also use them to move on from what risks being a sterile dis­cus­sion to con­sider what com­puters have to offer in terms of lit­er­at­ure and writing.

It’s per­haps unsur­pris­ing that over­all I take Shirky’s pos­i­tion: the inter­net is mind-expanding, and the mind-blowing volume of mediocrity cre­ated in the pro­cess doesn’t alter that. It’s undoubtedly true that there is an amaz­ing amount of trivial and/or self-serving junk on the web (prob­ably includ­ing most of what I write), as well as mater­ial that’s offens­ive and/or dan­ger­ous. The same is true for print.

Carr’s argu­ment seems to me to centre around a cri­tique of hyper­link­ing rather than of the web per se, and it’s hard to argue with the sug­ges­tion that rap­idly click­ing from page to page isn’t con­du­cive to deep study or crit­ical under­stand­ing. It’s also clearly true that this sort of fren­etic beha­viour is at least facil­it­ated, if not encour­aged, by pages with lots of links such as those found on Wiki­pe­dia and many news sites. There’s a tend­ency to encounter some­thing one doesn’t know and imme­di­ately look it up — because doing so is so easy — only to do the same thing with this second page, and so on. On the other hand, few things are  less reward­ing than keep­ing read­ing mater­ial for which one doesn’t have the back­ground, whose argu­ments will never make sense and whose con­tent will never cohere as a res­ult. Hyper­link­ing makes such con­text read­ily avail­able, along­side a poten­tially destabil­ising of loss of focus.

It’s import­ant to real­ise that such dis­trac­tion isn’t inev­it­able, though. When read­ing Carr’s art­icle I was reminded of a com­ment by Esther Dyson (in another con­text) to the effect that the inter­net is simply an amp­li­fier that accen­tu­ates what one would do any­way. Deep thinkers can use hyper­link­ing to find addi­tional inform­a­tion, sim­plify and their learn­ing and gen­er­ally enrich their think­ing; con­versely, shal­low thinkers can skim more mater­ial with less depth. I think there’s an unmis­tak­able whiff of cul­tural elit­ism in the notion that book-reading is self-evidently pro­found and web-page-reading neces­sar­ily superficial.

It’s tempt­ing to sug­gest that books bet­ter reflect and sup­port a shared cul­tural exper­i­ence, a value sys­tem that’s broadly shared and con­sidered, while the inter­net fosters frag­ment­a­tion, ill-considered and narrowly-shared sub-cultures. I sus­pect this sug­ges­tion of broadly true, but not in a naïve cause-and-effect way: books cost money to print and dis­trib­ute, which tends to throttle the diversity of expres­sion they rep­res­ent. In other words, there’s a shared cul­tural space because that’s all people were offered. Both the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment and the Cath­olic church main­tained a list of cen­sored and banned books that effect­ively lim­ited the space of pub­lic dis­course through books. Both sys­tems sur­vived until recently: the Index Liborum Pro­hib­itorum was only abol­ished in 1966 (and hung around for longer than that in Ire­land), and the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment domest­ic­ally banned Spycatcher in the 1980s.

What may be more sig­ni­fic­ant than hyper­link­ing, though, is closed hyper­link­ing and closed plat­forms in gen­eral. This is a danger that sev­eral writers have alluded to in ana­lys­ing the iPad. The notion of cur­ated com­put­ing — where users live in a closed garden whose con­tents are entirely pre-approved (and some­times post-retracted, too) — seems to me to be more con­du­cive to shal­low think­ing. Whatever else the open inter­net provides, it provides an inform­a­tional and dis­curs­ive space that’s largely uncon­strained, at least in the demo­cratic world. One can only read deeply when there is deep mater­ial to read, and when one can find the back­ground, con­text and dis­sent­ing mater­ial against which to check one’s read­ing. To use Dyson’s ana­logy again, it’d be easy to amp­lify the tend­ency of people to look for mater­ial that agrees with their pre-existing opin­ions (con­firm­a­tional bias) and so shape the pub­lic dis­cus­sion. There might be broad cul­tural agree­ment that Mein Kampf and its recent deriv­at­ives should be excluded in the interests of pub­lic safety, but that’s a power­ful decision to give to someone — espe­cially when digital tech­no­logy gives them the power to enforce it, both into the future and retroactively.

(As an his­tor­ical aside, in the early days of the web a tech­no­logy called con­tent selec­tion was developed, inten­ded to label pages with a machine-readable tag of their con­tent to enable par­ental con­trol amongst other things. There was even a stand­ard developed, PICS, to attach labels to pages. The ques­tion then arose as to who should issue the labels. If memory serves me cor­rectly, a con­sor­tium of southern-US Chris­tian churches lob­bied W3C to be nom­in­ated as the sole label-provider. It’s fair to say this would have changed the inter­net forever.…)

But much of this dis­cus­sion focuses on the rela­tion­ship between the cur­rent inter­net and books. I sus­pect it’s much more inter­est­ing to con­sider what post-book media will look like, and then to ask what might make such media more con­du­cive to “smart study”. There are shal­low and simple changes one might make. Allow­ing hyper­links that bring up defin­i­tions of terms in-line or in pop-ups (as allowed by HyTime, incid­ent­ally, a far older hyper­text model than the web), would reduce de-contextualisation and atten­tion frag­ment­a­tion. I find tools like Read It Later to be invalu­able, allow­ing me quickly to mark pages for later read­ing rather than hav­ing to rely on memory and the inev­it­able cog­nit­ive load, espe­cially on mobile devices. Annot­at­ing pages client-side would be another addi­tion, on the page rather than at a sep­ar­ate site. More broadly, mul­ti­me­dia and link­ing invite a whole new style of book. The iPad has seen sev­eral “concept” pro­jects for rad­ic­ally hyper­linked mul­ti­me­dia works, and pro­jects like Sophie are also look­ing at the read­ab­il­ity of hyper­me­dia. Unsur­pris­ingly a lot of the best work is going on within the Squeak com­munity, which has been look­ing at these issues for years: it has a rich his­tory in com­puter sci­ence, albeit some­what out­with the mainstream.

I doubt the inter­net can ever make someone smarter, any more than it can make someone care­ful. What it can do is facil­it­ate new ways of think­ing about how to col­lect, present, organ­ise and inter­act with inform­a­tion in a dynamic and semantic­ally dir­ec­ted fash­ion. This is def­in­itely an agenda worth fol­low­ing, and its great to see dis­cus­sions on new media tak­ing place in the gen­eral wide-circulation press and newspapers

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