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More on The Internet Changes How We Think

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From an evolutionary perspective people don’t change much. At the level of our DNA we’re not vastly different from Palaeolithic humans. We need to eat the same diets, more or less, and should follow roughly the same patterns of exercise. We are rigid and inflexible in these genetic matters.

The circuitry of our brains on the other hand is infinitely flexible. Martin Seligman’s work on failure reflects the downside of this. People who repeatedly experience failure will learn how to feel helpless and fail even more. The reason isn’t just a learned pattern of responses but a chemical reworking of the brain that predisposes people to giving up.

The upside, as positive psychologists and cognitive psychologists know, is that if people begin implementing patterns of behaviour with positive outcomes, the brain will rewire for success.

That principle lies behind many of the major changes in the communications landscape over millennia. Though we don’t change fundamentally, psychologically we evolve and adapt rapidly – the evolution of the alphabet (and the development of a phonetic symbolism for experience), writing (and the evolution of abstraction), printing (and the birth of objectivity)…. Computing?

I think the issue has to be addressed along three main lines of inquiry and we touched on them above:

• Memory and collective reflection
• Creativity
• What we know

And the principle we bring to those issues is the simple one that whatever else stays constant, the brain will always adapt.

First though a few words on what is changing in communications.

The Changing Media Landscape

The 21st century has seen the proliferation of media types. If we go back over the past 500 years we can ascribe some form of categorisation to this change.

The printing press gave us books, pamphlets and political tracts. It led in time, once there was adequate distribution with the arrival of the train, to newspapers.

The invention of telegraphy eventually gave us the telegram and the telephone and when technologists played around with the wireless possibilities we were treated to the radio and then the TV. And in the meantime film was born.

There are a few major innovations behind the evolution of a media landscape many of us grew up with. Printing presses, trains, telegraphy/telephony, moving picture capture, and radio-diffusion.

What difference does the Internet make?

In terms of distribution the Internet takes the cost of picture/video distribution close to zero to the end-user/content producer. If that was its only contribution to change it would be a substantial one. It also makes distribution instantaneous. It is we rather than the product that is often not available.

In terms of content production the Internet and advances in processing technologies (not just the chip but also the algorithm) the current media environment now consists of around thirty innovations including podcasts, vidcasts, blogs, RSS feeds, aggregation of content, automation of content production, online classifieds, new forms of search and search result visualisation, personal TV stations, social bookmarking, social networks, Wikis, mobile content (two minute movies), SMS of course, mixed media productions, virtual worlds (Second Life), start pages.

The list is so long that it begs a little understanding. What does it mean? The reality is only a few things are happening though they are happening in many ways.

1. The fact is everybody (within sufficient media literacy) can create a content object that can be freely distributed to everybody. This is the flat earth syndrome. There are going to be no media hierarchies, we think.
2. Many of the people who create media objects like blogs, vidcasts etc, have them aggregated by others (so there is a new hierarchy!). Aggregation simply means a site that compiles extracts from other sites/media objects and presents that aggregation as a new media object.
3. The institutions which have mediated knowledge and credibility over the past 150 years are in disrepair and consequently what we know and our credulity are suffering. It’s the counterpart to mass creativity.

This is not like a revolution but in its essentials it signals dramatic change.

The “media” for over 150 years have acted as a mediating power between corporations, politicians, authorities and the population at large. They are the cornerstone of the societies we have known and lived in. Nothing much could have functioned as it did, without them.

Newspapers and latterly radio and then TV have explained the daily functioning of our societies to us. Books were still written of course, but their authors came to our radio sets, newspapers and TVs to explain their ideas. The world of knowledge diffusion has effectively been underwritten by brand managers. That’s the down and dirty of how we have organised society.

News organisations make compromises to stay in business, keeping one eye on the ad master, the other on the audience. But they have also executed their roles successfully and maintained themselves in this mediating position, reporting news on corporations, politicians and authorities, while earning ad revenue, staying out of gaol, and maintaining large audiences.

We are taking that cornerstone away. The result might simply be that corporations, politicians and authorities have to go out seeking more mediating points to maintain their presence and credibility.

The result might also be, though, a profound loss of certainty, a loss of societal identity, the breakdown of what limited commonality societies enjoyed.

Perhaps it impacts memory and patterns of remembrance. Our appreciation of creativity and its purpose might also be changing.

Memory and Collective Reflection
Surely the most striking aspect of the new web is the degree to which it is given over to memory. Sites like StashSpace.com (geared for converting old videos into digital memories), flickr, new digital memory functions in Windows Vista and flock, Nokia’s LifeBlog software, and blogs.

If we look at the single biggest achievement of technology (it may not be the most significant – we’re talking sheer size) it is memory. Some organisations already operate terabyte memory banks. And the Internet is supported by a vast network of memory aids: storage, search engines, social networks and social book marking.

We seem also to be engulfed by a wave we’ve created, individually. All that memory is ours, at least a lot of it. We’re not talking about vast historical archives. We’re talking the last five years of gunk. Of course, there’s room for skepticism.

First, is memory so important? Isn’t the single most striking wave on the web the music download? Here is an opposing view: “Today iTunes makes only a slim profit, and its rivals are awash with red ink. Napster is seeking a buyer, and even with its backhaul business, Nokia’s new Loudeye acquisition – the basis for Recommenders – lost $3.5m on revenue of $5.4m in its most recent quarter.” Andrew Orlowski in The Register, Sept 27 2006.

Yes, there’s plenty going on in music but on the hardware side. One of the peculiarities of a world with dispersed forms of information is that solid rumour stacks of fast. You’d be forgiven for walking around with the impression that everybody is downloading and often.

But isn’t MySpace more important even than downloads. At a recent conference in Amsterdam Marc Canter and Craig Newmark agreed: MySpace is about music. It is huge but so too are, still, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Green Day, U2 and Simply Red. In other words in music it is not unusual to see the herd collect.

The web, ably assisted by the hard-disk, comes down to memory. That is its unusual manifestation, the way it provides facilities for us all to place a part of our lives in archive, often for all to see, and releases us further from the constraints on time placed by needing to remember.

The status of creativity in the new web world is extraordinary. Creativity is liberated, no question. Whether people are using digital cameras, creating short videos and animated clips or blogs, or mash ups, the rapid development of user generated content sites is evidence of a significant shift in the process of expression.

As well as gushing over this outcome, let’s also think about how it relates to purpose. Traditionally creativity has served a number of masters – memory and collective memorial being two, pleasure being another.

What purpose is the current rash of creativity serving? I don’t want to make a moral judgment condemning it for serving no purpose but I do want to understand if the sense of purpose is reduced or enhanced by it.

As far as I can see the content industries have broken the link between creativity and memorial across most forms of creative expression. User generated content resembles reality TV in that it provides a succession of symbolic moments, none of which are particularly real, cumulative or serving a purpose outside themselves.

Like soap operas which focus in, repetitively, on a small number of emotions expressed in clichéd situations, reality TV focuses in on emotive decision points. We have drama without any real reason for it, other than those decision points.

User generated content seems equally adrift from reason and purpose. Or to be generous its purpose is highly individual. It does not serve memory, or a collective memorial process, but it does serve the needs of the individual creating it. That is different from past art.

On the one hand there are some great acts out there on the new web, on the other hand you search in vain for a unifying theme. Again I would like to repeat that this could just be the best way to go or the worst way to go.

The most generous comment you can make is that a Long Tail creative economy forces people to connect with their micro-interest group and share meaning there rather than in the broad base that was previously served by drama, comedy, news etc.

What We Know
What we know also changes in the web world, how we know too. It’s been said that the future is search. Search and discovery. We can easily adapt to a world where sinking the deep foundations of knowledge become irrelevant because all is knowable through Google.

“Googlephiliacs are effusive with pledges of faith and trust: “We trust the democratic, bottom-up, blog-building, link-loving nature and integrity of Google’s PageRank system” [Morville]. It’s a religious thing. It binds us together, they say. “Collectively we believe in Google, it’s our memory, it’s the way we share.” [Winer].” Andrew Orlowski.

We’d be stupid if we did but we can see it happening. At the same time what we know is becoming more determined by the cross-flow of conversations and debate than by either google or libraries and foundations.

A couple of months back I interviewed Henry Jenkins of MIT and an “expert” on convergence, in so far as anybody can regard themselves as an expert. This is Henry’s take on what’s happening:

“The grassroots communities of fans, bloggers, and gamers are playing an active role in documenting, analyzing, predicting, and responding to media change, operating alongside of and in many cases, doing a better job than, traditional sites of learning and research.”

In other words authority is becoming diffused. What we know is passing back into uncertainty. Knowledge is in a constantly emerging condition. No bad thing.

The other effect of the web on knowledge is that a quasi-religious element enters into crowd behaviour. Though experts talk about the wisdom of the crowd, the crowd still behaves sometimes like a herd and sometimes like a congregation.

In each field of the blog arena, and in each area of web content aggregation, there are a small number of prophets and many disciples. In technology, TechCrunch, Techmeme; in the slightly wider sphere, Digg, Memeorandum and Netscape, in parenting, Dooce, in food Delicious Days. It seems in the midst of uncertainty people find apron strings to hold onto.

In terms of accurate information delivery it’s doubtful whether the emerging system cuts the mustard (though I’m a sceptic about what went before). An example, bearing in mind that TechCrunch is one of the web’s most trafficked sites.

Today Techcrunch reported on a new search product called Powerset asking if it would “pull a Google.” The author, Michael Arrington, had not seen Powerset but still felt able to speculate.

On , which also covered Powerset and relies on its makers to describe its value, the author announced that a product called CastTV had developed advanced video search.

The evidence, however, is not there. CastTV has not launched and is not open to view. So we’re really talking about a sneak preview of something that must be in its early stages (or are we? It’s not clear).

In the good old days…. Well I never bought into the idea that traditional media were saintly in their use of sources but to comment when you haven’t seen a source seems to me a development we need to judge critically, using developers to describe their own product, in a relatively uncritical way, is also allowing in to the system a self-referencing judgment.

We seem too be losing the ability to make high quality demands on our information providers and, if we were, the response would be that the crowd corrects these errors and produces a better long term product.

Diligence and the applications of traditional knowledge values could also correct those errors, though, so we have to be careful how we play with the idea of progress and advantage.

We seem too be losing the ability to make high quality demands on our information providers and if we were the response would be that the crowd corrects these errors and produces a better long term product. Diligence and the applications of traditional knowledge values could also correct those errors, though, so we have to be careful how we attribute the idea of progress and advantage.

What we know and how we know it, the checks and balances on authority, are all changing.

Summary and conclusions.
Significant changes in communications change how we think and what we know. Historically our memory needs (both individual and social), our creativity, and our approach to knowledge have interacted in ways that produced the loose canon or art, knowledge and culture that made up our view of civilisation.

Keepers of the cannon, the media, pulled off a brilliant balancing act to fund these cerebral activities, and disseminate their results, while keeping our economies ticking over at modest rates of growth.

Today’s situation is less clear. The role of a unified set of “media” enterprises is definitely undermined by the proliferation of media types. Where there were four main types of media there are now thirty four. We don’t yet know what that diversification means for the economic roles media play and what, in the long term, the economic paymaster will fund and support.

Meantime the purposeful social roles played by memory, creativity and knowledge seem to be in retreat. Drama and art seem to be actively migrating from their traditional social and political purposes.

In their place is a system of creative self-satisfaction, technological memorials, and dispersed authority.

As yet the new system has not shown its worth in mediating the needs of economic progress with the tricolour of civilisation: memory, creativity and knowledge but that might just be a question of time.

On the other hand people are apparently having more fun, everything is more democratised; but everything is less certain.

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