I love words. They’re often springboards to thought for me, and last week three words — sustainability, quality, and chaos — sprang up during talks I participated in. Simultaneously, an essay by Nicholas Carr and one by Clay Shirky bashed around some of the same terms and ideas as a point-counterpoint featured in the Wall Street Journal.
It may seem surprising, but the word “sustainable” fell into disrepute at the SSP Annual Meeting, starting with Geoff Bilder picking it apart (“it sounds like you’re grimly holding on”) and ending with Joe Esposito worrying that it creates that illusion that we’ve already reached the pinnacle of achievement and only need to sustain it. Both Geoff and Joe had excellent points, with Joe’s feeding more into the next two concepts — quality and chaos. If we’re at the peak of achievement, surely we have defined quality beyond reproach and driven chaos out of scientific discourse!
Well, of course we haven’t done either of those things.
Geoff and I debated “quality,” and I think we ended up agreeing that, as a term, it should usually be met with a challenge to define exactly what the person means. Do they mean the quality of a fine copy edit? The quality achieved through speed and relevance? Quality delivered through precision? Or quality of production and aesthetics? Only by defining these terms better can we overcome the use of “quality” as a synonym for “anachronism.” Ultimately, I’d argue that quality is a moving target.
The word “chaos” also came up again and again — when talking about blogs, low-end scientific publishing, commenting systems, and social media — reflecting the worry that information proliferation will lead to chaos and the destruction of cherished and seemingly effective systems we currently have in place. Shirky summarizes this worry in his Wall Street Journal counterpoint:
. . . amateurs produce endless streams of mediocrity, eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmed predictions of incipient chaos and intellectual collapse.
His follow-up thought puts this worry in a more compelling context:
But of course, that’s what always happens. Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.
Shirky then outlines how local and “vulgar” versions of the Bible and “distracting” secular writings led to the destruction of a church-dominated Europe — and then to the refashioning of Western culture around science, literature, and the arts in a way that would have been impossible without cultural norms eroding.
Carr’s worries spring from research showing that multitasking is really partialtasking, leading to losses in productivity, comprehension, and retention — he thinks we are making ourselves stupid:
People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.
I tend to find myself poking more holes in Carr’s claims than in Shirky’s. To me, it seems that Carr’s points, being based on psychological studies, are more prone to trendy theoretical frameworks than Shirky’s interpretations of historical fact. I had this hunch reinforced recently when Carr was interviewed by Robert Siegel on NPR. Siegel poked some major holes into Carr’s points, as in this exchange:
SIEGEL: In every age, there are critics of new technologies you write about them in the book. There seems to be an inevitable argument on behalf of innovation, whether it is the calculator or whether it is “Sesame Street” — that was full of quick jump cuts and short items that critics said would be distracting, and would not build up the attention span of the children who watched it. But it doesn’t matter. What is more sophisticated and more technologically savvy inevitably seems to win.
Mr. CARR: I think that’s true. And I’m kind of a fatalist, actually, when it comes to technology.
For people in our industry, Shirky’s essay is well worth reading if only because it touches on peer-review again and again — traditional peer-review that took the printed page for granted, and newer forms to be found in Wikipedia and elsewhere.
I recall reading an essay from a 19th century medical journal in which the author decried the vast amounts of information he was required to master, the lack of time in which to absorb it, and the unreasonable expectations of his peers that he should retain it. The timelessness of these complaints are, to me, more convincing and compelling than recent studies hypothesizing from current debates and worries.
Unfortunately, the hand-wringing will persist. Some may argue this is only proper, but it doesn’t seem very useful. As Shirky writes:
In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”
It seems that what’s most sustainable is an ongoing and shifting debate over what represents chaos and what represents quality. It’s worth noting that these words, for me, arose during verbal presentations at meetings held over the past week. With that in mind, I’ll leave the last quote to Shirky:
There is no easy way to get through a media revolution of this magnitude; the task before us now is to experiment with new ways of using a medium that is social, ubiquitous and cheap, a medium that changes the landscape by distributing freedom of the press and freedom of assembly as widely as freedom of speech.