Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Our Abilities, and the Future of Civilization

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 21, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, August 21, 2008.

Responding to Larry Sanger, who has allowed himself to be dragged into the ridiculous "Is Google Making Us Stupid, threatening the end of civilization" debate.

I would say that civilization, if it is threatened, is rather more threatened by television (which has robbed an entire generation of the capacity to think critically, at least according to Al Gore (_The Assault on Reason_)) and by shallow, yellow journalism (a certain amount of which, sadly, manifests itself on the Britannica Blog).

That said, even the basic observations which are apparently agreed upon by all sides in this ridiculous debate fly against any semblance of reality, as the slightest observation would show clearly.

> * Our attention span is naturally shortened if we spend our time hopping from item to item online.

First of all, the statement is counterfactual. Some people spend some of their time hopping from item to item online. Many people - including most academics - continue to read lengthier works, whether or not they are online. I can think of any number of book-length items I have posted in my newsletter. I read them, and from what I can judge, others read them as well.

Moreover, our online time is not simply spent reading items on the web. A significant amount of time is spent playing games or otherwise interacting. Think of the hours spent by people building things in Second Life, or forming clans in World or Warcraft. My own introduction to the online world was to spend twelve hours at a time studying code, so I could learn how to build online dungeons. Millions of people, as can be easily seen by the creativity exercised on the web, spend hours upon hours in deep, concentrated thought on a single item.

And second, even granted the antecedent, the consequent does not follow. The presumption here is that the only way we could have a long attention span is if our attention is guided in some way, as in a lengthy novel or other work. However, a person can demonstrate a lengthy attention span even when flitting from one thing to the next. I did that this afternoon, in fact, working my way through a series of issues related to Sunbird calendaring with Thunderbird on Ubuntu. I went through dozens of divverent sites, following a concentrated chain of reasoning that existed nowhere in print, but only in my head, as I deduced the solution to my problem one clue at a time. This is very typical of web reasoning; I have documented the process in some of my writing (for example, 'Setting Up Sunbird'). In short, we can develop our capacity for concentrated thought through mosaics as well as with chains - and I daresay the skill that results from the former is a strengthened version of the latter, hardly weaker.

> * Many of us report that we’re more easily distracted now. (I admit it, but I’m not proud of it and I think I can improve.)

One wonders, more distracted than what?

Let us imagine, say, a person from the 50s. Do you think this person could concentrate on his or he work on the computer, with email in the background, occasional instant messages, a mobile phone, and the TV playing in the background (showing the Olympics, naturally, which jumps from thing to thing - as I am watching right now as I type) and my wife commenting on the action.

I daresay, not.

The suggestion that we are 'more easily distracted' flies in the face of observation. The most causal look at out environment makes it clear that we are deluged with distractions. And yet we are able to maintain our focus through that - you to type your missive, I to type my reply (and later on I'll go read some William Gibson while listening to the ball game).

We do more things, sure. But to say we are 'more easily distracted' is most assuredly false.

> * A lot of what is “happening” occurs online, not in professionally published books, journals, or magazines.

I'll grant you that.

But that's a good thing, especially considering the detritus that passes for 'quality' in books, journals and magazines.

> * There is far more out there that we want to read than we possibly can read.

This has always been the case, from some time after the Middle Ages on.

> So we tend to skim and read superficially, not thoughtfully.

There is no evidence of this. Indeed, the emergence of 'fisking' suggests a phenomenon quite the opposite. It was rare in the lump-publishing world to see a point-by-point refutation of an argument. In the online world, this is common. And the whole phenomenon of 'fact checking your ass' was an almost unknown talent in pre-internet days, an era when writers and politicians routinely got away with howlers.

What people need to recognize is that we've learned, in the electronic age, to process content - and especially textual content - at different speeds. We skim when we're searching - here we are looking for keywords, patterns, telling points, whatever. When we hit something important we slow down, and take in the content. When we hit the point where we want to engage, we take the content apart, considering it line by line, point by point.

Probably at no time in history have so many people been closely analyzing so much text. This will only increase as our skills at it increase (remember - we're coming from a pre-literate age, compared to what we can do today).

> * The classics have no constituency online.


> Tolstoy isn’t in the blog ranking.

Google: "Results 1 - 10 of about 7,020,000 for tolstoy." I'll leave calculating the Google page rank for the various pages as an exercise for the reader.

> Dickens doesn’t appear atop

False. Google again: "Results 1 - 10 of about 1,330 from for dickens."

> Newton and Leibniz aren’t going to be Slashdotted.

False. Google again: " Results 1 - 10 of about 1,780 from for newton." and " Results 1 - 10 of about 68 from for leibniz" (there's another 10 results for 'Leibnitz').

Did you even check these statements before making them?

Dickens, Tolstoy, Newton and Leibniz will all continue to have a constituency, precisely because they are classics (and, arguably, they are considered classics *because* they have a constituency). The suggestion that they don't show up in Technorati or Digg (aside from being false) is irrelevant. They show up in their own way, because they are a different type of work. And - ultimately - they all *will* show up, even in the blog rankings, as we can see from the 'Pepys Dairy' blog that was popular for a while, or the just-started 'Orwell Prize'.

My feeling is that the emergence of the internet (and the web) has come at just the right moment in history, because we could probably not have endured another generation raised in a state of semi-hypnosis glued to their televisions. The United States has raised a generation of children that believes a large number of things that are known to be false. Their media - the much vaunted 'voice of authority' has systematically misled them on matters of science and religion, history and politics.

Larry, I have less and less patience for a small self-appointed set of critics who are apparently darlings of the publisher set but who have no good grasp of the sort of thinking and learning that is taking place online and where it is leading us. It is an arena in which matter of fact and reason appear to have no place, where the sole currency is self-promotion, a dross best achieved by writing what the publishers want to hear. Such places are best avoided by those who pursue truth and reason, rather than mere self-aggrandizement.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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