Monday, September 27, 2010

Another Legacy Post

Editor: Sorry, this is yet another post from my previous blog. I'm stewing up a really good post, about business and culture,, you'll just have to see it when it goes live.

The Wiki Man

or, "An Augmented Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free"

"Conversations aren't contests!"
"OK, a point for you, but I'm still ahead."
-Calvin and Hobbes (not in that order)

We used to proclaim the coming of a great Age of Information, where our world would be shaped by the free dissemination of knowledge, causing unpredictable, miraculous changes to our culture. Now that it's here, we're still trying to figure out what the ramifications are. Socially, it seems that there are new structures being constructed electronically that have no analogs in the flesh-and-blood world. In the realm of pure information, a wide and cacophonous sea has arisen, full of truth, falsehood, trivia, rumor, news, and entertainment. The internet hosts information with a half-life rather than a shelf life, self-destructing in days, hours, or, in the case of some personal news on social networking sites, minutes. The rise of the meme, a small unit of virally-spreading social importance, has produced culture on the same scale. Nigh infinite specialized blogs give otherwise tiny interests worldwide audiences.

We continue to produce music, film, television, literature (and other reading material), and other art, and more people have access to it—and to content produced before the Electronic Era. In this way, the entire universe of human discourse is expanding at an amazing rate. What does not seem to be expanding, however, is our ability to retain it—at least, not fast enough. It appears that as this expansion of content continues, the average human brain will need a peripheral device in order to process it.

I don't have the research to back everything I'm about to say. Truthfully, I don't think the research has been done, and in some cases, the research may not be possible. I have listed here three assumptions about our society and its content that support the idea that the human mind cannot suffice forever as a solitary data processing device.

The Three Assumptions

1. The universe of content is expanding faster than our rate of daily content consumption
2. The rapidly dividing nature of social groups is making content less accessible overall
3. Intertextual depth is increasing the difficulty of making all the connections available in a work

I'll explain them. Number one. There is a lot of information in the world. The internet has made it so easy to produce content that everyone is doing it. (Almost literally.) As the number of content producers increases and the amount of content they produce increases, our ability to consume it all (and our desire, to be honest) can't keep pace. That's fine: no one expects you to read the whole Internet. In fact, I would advise heavily against it. But it does mean that at some point, there will be so much content to refer to that our shared universes of discourse will become more separate.

Think about that. When was the last time you talked to a friend about a basketball game, a movie, a book? Now delve deeper. When was the last time you talked about an issue, in which both parties had read similar material? What about a webcomic or a flash game? As we create a larger universe, we might eventually produce enough content that most of our communication will be in hypertext.

Number two. Culture naturally separates out, like old dairy products. One clump here, another there, divided by preferences in religion, politics, language, genetic background, tastes in music, age, and hairstyles. Modern culture separates more than it used to. In college, for example, I ran with a crowd that came from mostly the middle of the political spectrum, listened to indie music, watched indie film, but all dressed reasonably normally. We did not mingle well with groups that were slightly different politically and had stranger hair, even if they liked the same music and movies. We had enough in common with those groups, but there was clearly a divider.

Today's dividers are many, as there are many things to be divided over, and separate less dissimilar strata. Can it be that these strata produce content that is left unread by the others?

Number three. Back in the day there wasn't much content to refer to. The writers of the classics basically referred to religious texts and classics that were even older than them. Today, you can't get through an episode of Psych without a couple dozen references to other works. Some of those works refer to other works. Intertextual depth is what I'm calling that networking of references, and it makes full comprehension of a work difficult, turning pieces of content into a set of nesting dolls. Perhaps this depth could become too much for the human mind.

Note that I am not asserting that all three of these assumptions are correct, or indeed that any one of them is. But if any one of them stands true, it stands to reason that someone wishing to converse in the future should be supplied with a device running an algorithm to search for the meanings of references in any given conversation, so that information can flow unhindered. At least, I hope so, because I'm kind of getting sick of looking things up on wikipedia while I'm instant messaging people.

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