The Glass Bead Game Redux

Borg Cube
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.

With almost all of the world’s codified knowledge at your fingertips, why should you spend increasingly scarce attention loading up your own mind just in case you may some day need this particular fact or concept? Far better, one might argue, to access efficiently what you need, when you need it. This depends, of course, on building up a sufficient internalized structure of concepts to be able to link with the online store of knowledge. How to teach this is perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity facing educators in the 21st century.

For now, the just-in-time approach seems to be narrowing peripheral intellectual vision and thus reducing the serendipity that has been the source of most radical innovation. What is apparently being eroded is the deep, integrative mode of knowledge generation that can come only from the “10,000 hours” of individual intellectual focus – a process that mysteriously gives rise to the insights that occur, often quite suddenly, to the well-prepared mind.

So we await the great syntheses that some day may be achieved by millions of linked minds, all with fingertip access to the world’s codified knowledge but with a globe-spanning spectrum of different perspectives. The hyperlinked and socially networked structure of the Internet may be making the metaphor of the Web as global “cyber-nervous system” into a reality – still primitive, but with potential for a far more integrated collective intelligence than we can imagine today.

Those of us who are still skeptical might recall that Plato, in the Phaedrus, suggested that writing would create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it.

The challenge is to adapt in a world with an exponentially increasing supply of information relative to the supply of human attention.

To play Hesse’s Glass Bead Game differently.

Cadged to a large extent from the Internet and Peter Nicholson’s thoughtful essay in the Globe & Mail.

One response to “The Glass Bead Game Redux

  1. Benjamin Steele

    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.

    Two examples.

    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.

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