I just downloaded and read Jeff Jarvis‘s Kindle single, “Gutenberg the Geek” (free to Prime subscribers, 99 cents otherwise). It provides a short history of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, drawing parallels between his initial business and how the printing press revolutionized every area of human endeavor and Silicon Valley tech start-ups and how we are currently going through a similar revolution with the Internet. At the end, Jarvis offers a persuasive argument for protecting the openness and public nature of the Internet, since we still cannot predict what revolutionary changes it will bring about in human civilization, just as in the early days of the printing press, no one could foresee that it would power the Reformation, enable the rise of modern science and create entirely new professions. It’s an entertaining and informative read (less than 20 minutes) that will be of interest to anyone who cares about books, technology or entrepreneurship.
There is no doubt about it — we are living in an information Golden Age. In just a matter of minutes, and assuming my computer and Internet connection are working, I can find the top news stories of the day, plus analysis and commentary; I can research almost any question I have; I can read opinions on pretty much any subject; I can watch videos, view art and listen to music, all with a click.
But is it all too much for us to cope with? I’m reading a fascinating book about the history of science: Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris. He describes how the invention of the printing press put books that were once extremely difficult to obtain into nearly every university, library and even some homes. Just as importantly, the accuracy and consistency of those books became much more reliable because they were no longer copied out by hand. As a result, science experienced a boom time, because scientists could finally easily read, study and build on each other’s ideas and data.
The development of the Internet, I think, will carry us into another boom time, if it hasn’t already begun. Not since the invention of the printing press has it been so easy to share information and build on what we already know. I don’t think it’s possible to have too much information. Information inevitably leads to innovation and progress. (That’s why it is so often suppressed.)
However, we have to change our habits when it comes to dealing with this unending flow of information, just as readers and publishers had to in the Renaissance following the invention of the printing press. It is no longer sufficient to be a passive receiver, even if you are not a scientist, but are a mere consumer of information. And content producers can no longer be one-way broadcasters of mass media, pushing content out to the lowest common denominator.
Rather, we must cultivate our sense of discernment, our ability to analyze, our critical thinking skills. We must be more willing to challenge what we read, see and hear on the Internet. We also must actively cull our incoming information flow, constantly editing our content stream so that it best serves our needs. I didn’t learn these skills in school; I don’t think many of my generation did. But they may (and should) be taught to my son.
I have had to learn for myself how to direct the fire hose of information. I have found this challenging and exciting, especially as I have watched the rise of social networks and seen how others engage in commentary and sharing. We are all helping one another to learn. We no longer rely on experts; each one of us can be consumer, publisher, analyst and critic of information.
My son is only three years old, but already I can see that he is unwilling to act as a passive receiver of information. Television cannot hold his attention when the computer beckons. What has been a challenging learning experience for me will probably be second nature to him.
I think it’s a waste of time to wonder if there is too much information available to us today. There is clearly no such thing as “too much information.” Human beings thrive on information, and if our species can be said to have a common purpose, it has been to increase our knowledge, to explore and discover. We will figure out how to better use these tools that we’ve invented. Our ability to adapt is one of our strengths, after all. But best of all, we will progress. With all of this information at our disposal, I don’t think we’ll be able to help it.
I find it amusing how history continually repeats itself and human nature proves to be so reliably predictable. Those who in their youth were advocates for change, progress and innovation, in their old age denounce the very same change, progress and innovation as a great threat to our culture, forgetting that they were once denounced in the same way.
This is the reaction I had when I read that Doris Lessing used her Nobel Prize acceptance speech to denounce the Internet as “inane,” something that does not promote reading and writing in young people. I have to wonder how much time Lessing has actually spent on the Internet. If she is anything like my father, who regularly complains about the Internet, computers, new-fangled dashboards on cars, cell phones, ipods and anything else remotely related to technology, she has spent very little time online.
Consider this quote from Lessing’s speech: “We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned…” Can’t that same quote be applied to pretty much any time in history? Lessing herself, who has rallied against the unquestioned destiny of women as wives and mothers and who has decried racial inequalities, should welcome the continued questioning of those certainties. Questioning and changing are signs of an evolving society.
It amazes me that a writer would pooh-pooh the democratization that the Web has brought to enabling everyone — not just those who can find a publisher — share their ideas through writing and to freely read and discuss the published ideas of others. The Web has fundamentally changed the exchange of information and ideas, from a one-to-many broadcasting paradigm where what was published was tightly controlled and tailored to the widest possible tastes, to a many-to-many (or some-to-some, depending on the niche) paradigm where everyone can be their own publisher and let each member of the audience decide what’s worth reading. Sure, you have to wade through a lot of the chaff to get to the wheat, but the beauty of it is that each individual gets to decide what’s valuable, not some conglomerate publisher with a bottom line to protect. If anything, the Web has produced more writers and readers — it’s just that they aren’t writing and reading in traditional formats.
Well, the novel hasn’t been around forever either; in fact, it’s a relatively new form. Change is inevitable, and therefore worth embracing. Just as the printing press revolutionized publishing and made the written word more widely available, making it possible for Lessing to have the career she’s had, so too is the Internet a new revolution in the sphere of writing and publishing. Look at the garbage that the major publishers keep trying to feed us — this is a revolution whose time has come. I think the advent of the e-book and publishing on demand, in addition to blogs, will make it possible for more people with something worthwhile to say to reach an audience and have an impact than ever before in our history.