I remember when I was a kid people would always say that to find life elsewhere in the universe, we had to look for carbon, because life was carbon-based. And I remember thinking, probably as a 10-year old, well who says that all life has to be carbon-based? Can’t we imagine a different kind of life? And people would say, no, that’s wrong, except now it isn’t so wrong to think that way. And I thought the same thing about the chances of finding life in the deep, deep ocean. I bet we will find weird life down there, I thought to myself, because these arguments that life can’t survive the lack of light and the intense pressure, they’re based on our very limited experiential base. After all, in terms of how life works, our N = 1. It can’t be right to be so sure.
So when I read critiques of the new culture we may be creating using all this internet stuff and mobile devices and Twitter and all the other things certain people like to make fun of, my ear is always listening for these unproven and unjustified assumptions. For example, almost all these critics assume that the good is self-evident and that the internet is displacing a wonderful tradition of knowledge, wisdom. and contemplation, offering very little of substance in return. Hmmm…I’m just not so sure about that, and I offer the following list of shaky assumptions that we should question fiercely and for which we should demand either evidential or logical proof
- Heavy internet users have short attention spans and lack mental discipline. This is just plain silly, if you ask me. When I get deep into researching a topic on the internet, I have a very long attention span. And if I am traveling across many different topics, how is that proof of anything other than a curious disposition?
- Digital life is shallow. Says who? By what standard? Compared to what? Going to the movies? Watching old I Love Lucy reruns? Reading a thick economic treatise? And in any case, digital life itself is neutral. It’s the person who is shallow or not, if indeed we want to use this rather elitist formulation. Even in the old analog culture, I never bought the line that going to the symphony is somehow culturally more significant than catching Bonnie Raitt at Wolf Trap. (I have to say I’ve even been to a Donnie Osmond concert in my lifetime….or was it the Osmond Brothers…the synapses misfire.)
- Slow is better than fast. You often hear the digital culture beaten up for its quick answers or its provision of instant gratification. But independent of all other values, such as accuracy, fairness, completeness, etc, there is nothing inherently bad about fast. In fact, fast will always, all other things being equal, be more efficient.
- Always “on” is bad. Prove it. As our societies and economies have become more complex, there are significant costs to periods of non-sentience. We may want to go back to an era of slower pace and tempo, but we can’t wish our way there. My experience as a manager is that organizations work best when they sustain momentum; there’s a favorite saying among managers: if you want something to get done, assign it to the busiest person on your team. And I actually believe that for many crackberry addicts, being constantly aware of the status of projects or other activities is actually less stressful than not knowing what is going on.
- Work based on reflection is better than immediate reactions. This is actually the ultimate argument of individuals who criticize the internet culture for being too fast or too persistent. And I think you have to admit that reflection has many advantages. Let’s unpack them. Reflection usually contributes to completeness and, in most cases, to accuracy. But reflection is at best neutral in terms of creativity; many argue for example that the best way to be creative is to generate as many ideas as possible without stopping to be judgmental. And there are certainly opportunity costs associated with reflection. As a CIA manager, I was always aware that one never had a monopoly on good ideas. The longer you wait to propose a new way of looking at a problem, the greater the chance that some other entity will beat you to it. (Whether knowledge work should be competitive in the first place–now that’s another question.)
- Formal work is better than casual work. By formal, people usually mean work that has gone through some recognized quality control or expert process. Writing in a hurry is just not as elegant and good, goes the argument, as a carefully constructed essay. The arguments used in discussing reflection apply here as well. There are certain situations where formal work is obviously appropriate, but they are not as numerous as the critics would have you believe. And informality has many advantages in addition to immediacy. For example authenticity, directness, and, often, honesty.
- Correct spelling and grammar is essential for communication and is an indication of careful expression. Now I have sympathy for this position because I would tell people whose work I was editing that the worst thing that could happen was for me to gain the impression that I as the editor was paying more attention to their piece than they ever did. Finding obvious typos was one of the events that would create that impression. But that said, I also reviewed many pieces that were impeccable in terms of spelling and grammar but deplorable when it came to logic or original thinking. So sometimes correct spelling and grammar indicates nothing more than that. The argument that spelling and grammar are essential for communication cannot be disputed. But special communication methods, such as the telegram for example, have always developed spelling and grammatical shortcuts that quickly became well understood. Twitter is just following in that tradition.
- It is more serious to do things by yourself than to do them in collaboration with others. Oh, for heaven’s sake!! This can only be accepted as gospel by individuals enamored of the great person theory of knowledge work.
- The internet is destroying literature. You’ve heard this. Nobody reads serious fiction any longer. Although I do believe classic forms of literature are threatened, I don’t buy the theory that it is the internet’s fault. Actually, it is probably more the fault of movies, television, DVDs, and video games. And in my view the real issue is that, compared to other, newer media for storytelling, the advantages of the novel just aren’t that apparent any longer.
- People who are playing Farmville on Facebook would otherwise be writing the great American novel or reading Proust. Please…(the game I like to play is Typing Maniac.)
- Most people don’t have anything interesting to say. This point is made peevishly in reaction to the fact that anyone now can blog or tweet. Again, I’ll concede that good writers of 500-word essays are not that common; but my experience, and I bet the experience of many others, is that lots of people actually do have something worthwhile to offer in the short form. Twitter and Facebook –and let’s not forget YouTube–are great democratizers of the public space and, if anything, are giving many the confidence to share their views with others. I’m darned if I can figure out why that is bad for a democracy. Now in your average dictatorship…
- Our current culture, which has taken millenia to develop, is better than any culture we could develop over the next ten years. At face value, that sounds pretty reasonable, but given the explosion of information, connectivity and transparency, I’m not so sure we should concede even this point. Knowledge is doubling in many fields at a faster rate than the education cycle for those disciplines. I don’t know about you but I’m putting my money on the future.