Sunday, July 20, 2008

What do we lose when we don't do our own shaping?

Some thoughts after reading the recent Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains" by Nicholas Carr.

Part of the motivation behind Compendium is to augment the human ability to create and shape large collections of ideas and relationships in a shareable, collective manner, not just within an individual's head or a single document. And also, not just as a big computational mass, but as something that can be given deliberate, expressive shape, just as people do when they write books or essays or create other kinds of expressive works. This is different than how Carr characterizes Google's project, as a Taylorizing of intellectual processes:

Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does... it carries out thousands of experiments a day... and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

It's (according to Carr) an artificial-intelligence view of the world, where a large chunk of human intellectual effort is replaced by automation.

Certainly Compendium has its computational aspects, and the interweaving of computerized information (of various kinds) with that entered and shaped by human beings is one of its fundamental constructs. But for me it remains, at root, an expressive medium, giving human authorship over connections between ideas at a larger scale than other tools. Computation is part of that, but mainly in the same way as movie cameras embed advanced technology and put it at the service of the filmmaker. It's still up to the filmmaker to make and express something worthwhile. The camera will never do it for the person.

I wonder if some of the resistance, or incomprehension, that many people have when they encounter Compendium could be due to what Carr writes about. Are we turning away from direct, deep engagement with particular texts (as both readers and authors) in favor of that we can skim, or which can be largely created for us, especially on the connection level? Why, he seems to say, should we bother drawing direct and explicit connections, when the search engine can always find and recreate them for us, dipping into an infinitely larger pool than we could ever do for ourselves?

When we read online... we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

(quoting playwright Richard Foreman)
As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

To some degree I do this myself, using Gmail and its fantastic search as my primary personal repository, letting the service provide automatic connections between all my emails rather than laboriously doing so in Compendium. I explain this to myself by saying, well, it's different for an individual than for a group, and Compendium is really more about group shaping at least in its design intent (although there are people using Compendium more as an individual tool, and I have done some of that myself).

1 comment:

Chris Watkins (a.k.a. Chriswaterguy) said...

I saw an Australian article 2 years ago called "Information Idol: How Google is making us stupid." I was appalled by the shallow, knee-jerk journalism, and wrote a brief blog post mentioning it here.

We can misuse any tool, and there's certainly a danger in the quick information fix that we can get from Google or Wikipedia. Which means we need to approach it intelligently and consciously, choosing how we consume information, not following every link - nor believing everything we read.

Exploring your writing about the Compendium - interesting ideas.