I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbol led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with truly a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang holiness is forever being created.
Joseph Knecht, Master of The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
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It’s been a long time since I read this book by Hesse, but I remember enjoying it. I read a lot of Hesse in highschool and was highly impressed at the time. This quote reminds me of a passage from Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. PKD was describing a mystical interaction with divine information. Every thought, every question, every possibility led to infinity. There was no final conclusion. To read the this PKD passage, see my blog post PKD on God as Infinity.
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Readers of blogs like this are witnessing a shift of intellectual authority from the traditional “expert” to the broader public. This is nowhere more tellingly illustrated than by Wikipedia, which has roughly 300,000 volunteer contributors every month.
What makes the mobilization of “crowd wisdom” intellectually powerful is that the technology of the Web makes it so easy for even amateurs to access a growing fraction of the body of human knowledge. The value of traditional expert authority is itself being diluted by the new incentive structure created by information technology that militates against what is deep and nuanced in favour of what is fast and stripped-down.
The result is the growing disintermediation of experts and gatekeepers of virtually all kinds. The irony is that experts have been the source of most of the nuggets of knowledge that the crowd now draws upon – for example, news and political bloggers depend heavily on a relatively small number of sources of professional journalism, just as many Wikipedia articles assimilate prior scholarship. The system works because it is able to mine intellectual capital. This suggests that today’s cult of the amateur will ultimately be self-limiting and will require continuous fresh infusions of more traditional forms of expert knowledge.
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I would point out that the intelligence of the internet age isn’t merely parasitic, but rather is a levelling of the playing field. Instead of being passive receivers, people now interact with their media.
First, news media follows closely twitter and the blogosphere to catch new trends and breaking news. Reporters aren’t usually the first people to be on a scene and with cellphones firsthand reporting can potentially come from anyone.
Second, bloggers often are very dedicated researchers who aren’t limited by the financial obligations of working for a media company. Many bloggers are highly educated and trained in various fields. Even if they don’t have the title of expert, they may act in that capacity. Bloggers often do original analysis and uncover new data, and mainstream reporters do sometimes cite bloggers. Bloggers don’t often get much respectability, but neither did the early muckrakers who were the earliest investigative reporters.
By being outside of the mainstream, bloggers have a different perspective. Sometimes bloggers are reporting on issues and events that get almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media.
The value of traditional expert authority isn’t being diluted, but it is being challenged. I would, however, argue that this strengthens expert authority by holding it to an even higher standard.
Objective analysis shows that Wikipedia articles on science and history are as reliable as encyclopedias (I would argue that they may be more reliable in some ways as they’re constantly being updated). Also, Wikipedia cites many external sources that often are directly linked and so one can judge for themselves rather than solely relying on an expert. In the long run, Wikipedia will on average become more reliable than a traditional printed encyclopedia. Furthermore, Wikipedia has stringent standards and so acts as a training ground for any person to learn how to determine the validity of information.
So, the web doesn’t result in “the growing disintermediation of experts and gatekeepers”. Rather, it increases mediation and creates better methods of gatekeeping. Traditional experts still play a part, but they no longer dominate the discussion.
The above blog linked to an article by Peter Nicholson. The following blog is a response to that article. The opinion of stated below resonates with my own sense of this emerging information age.
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What has led me to rant about this pet peeve of mine, is Peter Nicholson’s, Globe and Mail article, “Information – rich and attention – poor” (09-09-12). Blaming the digital age he declares,
“In becoming information rich, we have become attention poor… [E]conomics teaches that the counterpart of every new abundance is a new scarcity – in this case the scarcity of human time and attention.”
[…]There is nothing wrong with the abundance of information created by digital technology. Yes, I realise some of it is slim, but that’s okay, because there are ways of accessing deeper knowledge as well. I personally have not experienced an attention deficit as a result of the “knowledge abundance”. What I have experienced is a thrill at being able to access so much information in such a short time. I do not fear what Nicholson refers to as the “24-hour knowledge cycle”, the ability to access news 24/7. I relish in it.
Nicholson writes about the changing market for knowledge. He states:
“When the effective shelf life of a document (or any information product) shrinks, fewer resources will be invested in its creation. This is because the period during which the product is likely to be read or referred to is too short to repay a large allocation of scarce time and skill in its production. As a result the ‘market’ for depth is narrowing.”
When you look at what is happening in the publishing world you have to agree with the first part of his comment, that because a “news product” has a short life it’s not financially feasible to invest heavily in it. However, I disagree with his conclusion, that the result is that the market for depth is narrowing. Hey, I’m part of the market and I’m not narrowing, nor are my eleven year old students who’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable. The desire for “depth” is not diminished by the abundance of knowledge. In fact, it is enriched by it.