My aggregator is piling up and I’m in one of those “no-time-to-read-my-feeds” stretches, especially when I get a new book in my hands that really makes me think. Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” is probably about the most level headed deconstruction of what’s happening with the Web that I’ve read yet, and, while it’s not nearly as sexy as Pink or Friedman, so far it’s pretty brilliant and much more grounded. He’s one educator who “gets it” in a very measured way. I’ve been marking it up like crazy and want to revisit a lot of it before I attempt some longer thoughts here, but there was one section that connected for me when I somehow landed on “Why We’re Powerless to Resist Grazing on Endless Web Data” from the Wall Street Journal last week.
In short, the article says that neuroscientists are finding evidence that we are addicted to new information, and in an era where new information is everywhere, that can be a problem:
In other words, coming across what Dr. Biederman calls new and richly interpretable information triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom. It is something we seem hard-wired to do, says Dr. Biederman. When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we are junkies for those. You might call us ‘infovores.’ ” For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives…We are programmed for scarcity and can’t dial back when something is abundant.
Hmmm…Twitter like opium, huh?
Believe it or not, I can relate to that “junkie for new information” description. (No, really.) And I really like that term, “infovore”. Definitely works. And it adds another layer to the whole balance issue. If we really are addicted to this, what does that say about how we teach our kids?
Shirky comes at it from the “creator of new information” stance and supplies a nice brain hit as well. In a chapter titled “Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production,” he talks at length about what makes Wikipedia work, that it’s more than simply a desire to work together. In fact, he says, Wikipedia “exists not as an edifice, but as an act of love.”
Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context. This does not mean that the people constructing it always agree, but loving someone doesn’t preclude arguing with them… What love does for Wikipedia is provide the motivation both for improvement and defense (141).
And it’s that last part where the info opiates kick in for me. The reason that vandals fail on Wikipedia is
because Wikipedia as a tool provides them with the weapons to fight those groups. Those weapons are taken up only by people who are willing to fight. Were that willingness to fade, the most contentious articles in Wikipedia, the articles on abortion and Islam and evolution, would be gone within hours, and it’s unlikely that the whole enterprise would survive a week (141)
And finally, there is this concluding paragraph to the chapter:
We don’t often talk about love when trying to describe the public world, because love seems to squishy and private. What has happened, though, and what is still happening in our historical moment, is that love has become a lot less squishy and a lot less private. Love has a half=life too, as well as a radius, and we’re used to both of those being small. We can affect the people we love, but the longevity and social distance of love are both constrained. Or were constrained–now we can do things for strangers who do things for us, at a low enough cost to make that kind of behavior attractive, and those effects can last well beyond our original contribution. Our social tools are turning love into a renewable building material. When people care enough, they can come together and accomplish things of a scope and a longevity that were previously impossible; they can do big things for love (142).
I know…quite a Kumbaya moment. But he’s right. Wikipedia was simply not possible before. So much more is possible today and will be possible for my kids, and I want them to feel the love, not just of learning new things, but of doing new things as well.