Mankind’s knowledge isn’t in the network, it’s in our heads. Oh wait, no it isn’t.


In a fairly ridiculous comment on Handelsblatt.com, CDU (conservative) member of parliament Ansgar Heveling attacked not just the internet, but a whole system of thought. The networked society, if you will. The article is pure link bait, or a display of incredibly obvious lack of understanding, and a pretty cheap political stunt. It pretty much deserves to be ignored. I’m going to fall for it, if only for one reason: It directly contradicts a fantastic book I’m just reading, and so I can’t just let it hang there.

Here’s what Mr Heveling writes in his wisdom knowledge ignorant opinion piece:

Doch Googles und Wikimedias dieser Welt, lasst euch zurufen: Auch wenn Wikipedia für einen Tag ausgeschaltet ist und Google Zensurbalken trägt, ist das nicht das Ende des Wissens der Menschheit. Welche Hybris! Lasst euch gesagt sein: Das Wissen und vor allem die Weisheit der Welt liegen immer noch in den Köpfen der Menschen

Rough translation:

However, Googles and Wikimedias of the world, let me shout out to you: Even if Wikipedia is switched off for a day and Google shows a censorship bar, this isn’t The End of Mankind’s Knowledge. The hubris! Let me tell you: The knowledge and particularly the wisdom of the world is still inside the heads of humans.

Well, Mr Heveling, funny you’d say that. Allow me to just quote David Weinberger back at you, who understands more of this topic than you and I, and – very much unlike you – has facts to back this up:

We have a new form of knowing. This new knowledge requires not just giant computers but a network to connect them, to feed them, and to make their work accessible. It exists at the network level, not in the heads of individual human beings.

You can read up on how knowledge works now and in the future in Mr Weinberger’s new book. And you should. I’ll even include a link to the German Amazon store just for you.

Web 2.0 Summit 08 shares web 2.0 lessons learned with the public


Web 2.0 SummitThis year’s Web 2.0 Summit is a who is who of the internets. What I find particularly cool is this year’s theme: Sustaining, applying and expanding the web’s lessons. The summit won’t be just an insiders’ game, but instead aims at spreading the love knowledge with the less focused, more mainstream crowds.

This is really important. Something I see on a daily basis (both in my work as a consultant and as the private favorite geek for friends and family) is that there’s quite a disconnect between those who work for the Internets and those who just use it for day to day stuff.

The two groups are, roughly, those of us who meet up regularly at conferences, Barcamps and web mondays, i.e. the inner circle of usual suspects, the web family, are on one side, checking out and breaking every new service, every closed alpha or beta, tweaking and hacking and mashing upstuff, are one side of the medal. The rest, those out there who use hotmail or t-online for email, the wide public, has (understandably) not the time, nor the nerves to deal with all those buggy new gadgets and widgets and services and whatnot.

To bridge that gap and to share the lessons learned, is part of our responsibility as early adopters, I think. And it’s easy, too. (Your task for the day: Explain one useful web 2.0 tool to a close friend or family member, and how it will give them a real value. Deal?)

Web 2.0 Summit 08 will do just that, but on a huge scale. It’s some of the brightest, most well-connected folks on the web, and they’ll share what they know. Here’s the speaker list. It’ll be grand.

(via BoingBoing)

Is Google making us stupid? (No.)


The Atlantic just ran an article asking “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which two friends forwarded independently – always a clear indicator that it might be a good idea to actually read the article. (Thanks Puja, thanks Burkhardt!) And The Atlantic author Nicholas Carr does raise some important points.

Carr’s key argument is that the way we read skim texts in the web makes us lose the ability to immerse ourselves deeply in longer texts: We forget how deep reading works. And he’s right on when he observes that all of us information workers find it increasingly bothersome to sit down with a book and read it front-to-back while emails keep pouring in, Blackberries chirp, phones ring. We all, I suspect, know the feeling. It happened to me more than once that mere minutes after sitting down with a book I started fidgeting and was drawn almost subconsciously to my email inbox, basically by reflex.

However, that’s only half the story.

Our reading patterns are (or so I think) to a large portion context-based. Reading in the office, with my computer sitting next to me, is particularly hard because distractions are everywhere and interruptions are mostly legitimate and not just random noise. It’s an office, after all. (In case you’re wondering: I work freelance, so it actually is possible for me, in theory, to read in my office.) But I can’t really see the same mechanisms at work in different contexts. When I like to immerse myself in a story, a book, a long and complex text, I try to block out as many distractions as I can. Switching off my phone for an hour isn’t heretical, it’s a legitimate choice. It takes little time to get back from skimming mode into deep reading mode. (Of course, it may very well be that younger generations have a harder time doing so because they learned to read in a different way; this I cannot say for sure and I do not want to judge about.)

There’s another point in Carr’s article that I find somewhat disturbing. He compares the internet to a system like Taylorism, “designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information”. Taylor’s ethic, Carr concludes, “is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well.”

One, the facts: The internet was by no means design for efficiency. Quite to the contrary, the internet was designed for redundancy, and it’s as messy as anything: Parts are failing? No worries, it’s all decentralized. The information will find another way. The internet with it’s complex architecture is what we call an emergent system. It’s (in a way) the opposite of efficiency.

Two, the internet is not our mind. “What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the mind,” says Carr. Google is not trying to tell us how to think. It’s a system that was (and still is) built to find information we are looking for: Google serves our demands, not the other way round. Of course, always having all the information out there at our fingertips does have an effect on our thinking (just as it seems that we completely forgot how to make appointments with friends without cascade of cell phone calls beforehand). But that doesn’t mean changing back is impossible.

Three, Carr states that “in Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency.” So? Google isn’t taking any workers’ rights to personal freedom here: Computers process information, in one way or another. It’s what they do, what they’re built to do. Trying to get more relevant results at the expense of nobody and nothing isn’t a bad thing to do in itself, is it? (Of course, secondary effects like low concentration span when over-using can be an issue.) Spending “days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries” doesn’t have an intrinsic value (which, to be fair, Carr doesn’t claim), it was (is?) rather a flaw in the system, a symbol of not having access to the information one is looking for. Efficiency is a word that comes to mind, convenience is another. Opportunity is a third, and maybe the most important one here: We now have, for the first time in human history, the chance to access a global repository of information, data, knowledge.

Is Google making us stupid? I think not. Lazy, maybe.