The Web as a Way of Understanding
As life and work get more networked and dynamic via the Web, our online activities also provide new metaphors for making sense of the emerging structures and systems. The Web is becoming a better model for understanding older aspects of the world, which still baffle us — complex aspects like motivation, creativity, and consciousness.
Demonstrating my point best is the concept of “memes.” Seven or eight years ago the term was nonsensical to most people I knew. Unless you had read Richard Dawkins3 you probably would have raised an eyebrow at the suggestion that ideas are like genes, selected and reproduced through culture, using us as carriers to maintain their own survival. But then Digg , YouTube, Twitter and the rest came along, and suddenly the idea makes intuitive sense to an entire generation with barely any explanation at all.
Now, not only is “meme” a mainstream concept, but people are using the concept to make more platforms and applications that work on that same principle. With these newer applications we’ll gain more elaborate metaphors and models from those, and so on. Further, these apps are fertile ground for research by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and other social scientists.4 The Web generates massive amounts of hard data. More to the point, it’s data that’s already digitized for analysis and visualization. We can use it in many more effective ways, and it doesn’t have to be manually entered into a new system for each specific use.
Beyond that, as we already know, the knowledge that may result from all that research can be more readily accessed by anybody, as it’s more easily searchable and there’s a corresponding trend towards open access journals and other alternatives to conventional publishing.
And it isn’t just today’s research we’re gaining more access to; we’re also getting close to the entire history of human knowledge, right at our fingertips. After all, data doesn’t tell the whole story; sometimes it prevents us from seeing the forest for the trees. Taking a step back to see what people thought and wrote about human fundamentals 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 2000 years ago (because some things will never change) can be very fruitful, if not essential.
And there’s one more factor we can’t forget: it isn’t just the data and ideas that are connected, we’re connected. Better ways to converse and collaborate bring the other three developments together even more richly, making the possibilities for learning literally unimaginable. The World Wide Web was always intended to be a platform for connecting knowledge and ideas by connecting people.5
This awesome new way to work and learn puts us in a world of abundance and autonomy that compels us to create ambitious new ideas and practices. Thinking of Clay Shirky’s well known claim that “we are living in the middle of the largest increase of expressive capability in the history of the human race,”6 I have to wonder exactly what it is we’re all expressing. My hope is that we’re also in one of the most profound philosophical transformations as well. Consider how the Web is helping create a culture in which we’re comfortable working, learning, and living in real-time; we’re “abandoning stocks to embrace flows”;7 we’re learning to think in beta, improving the process rather than hopelessly trying to perfect every product.8 It isn’t just that things are changing; how things change is changing, and we need a new models and vocabularies to help us appreciate it.
It will all keep improving, as long as we keep making it better. Like any technology, the Internet can be abused. It can be wasteful, misleading — even dangerous. It’s also the best tool we have for navigating this historical transition we’re living through. Our understanding, like the Web and everything else, is a work in progress.
1See Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps (2003) by Peter Galison for a sense of how 20th century science was affected by 19th century technology, e.g. via Einstein’s experience working in the patent office.
2See George Lakoff & Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (1980). For something more recent and comprehensive read Steven Pinker’s Stuff of Thought (2007).
3Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976).
4Much of the research that went into Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s recent book about the effects of social networks, Connected (2009), was done on Facebook.
5Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web (1999),
6Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody (2008): p. 106.
7John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison, “Abandon Stocks, Embrace Flows,” HBR Blogs (January 27, 2009): http://blogs.hbr.org/bigshift/2009/01/abandon-stocks-embrace-flows.html
8Jeff Jarvis, “Product v. process journalism: The myth of perfection v. beta culture,” at buzzmachine.com (June 7, 2009).