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This Week's Contrarian Theme: The Positives

Socializing, Sharing and Learning: The Web's Leverage Points

October 18, 2008

In pondering leverage points for positive change, the Web dominates my thinking precisely because it offers our highly social, highly curious species new ways to socialize and explore.

At the risk of sounding entirely unpolitically correct, I would say the natural, ideal scenario for the average human being is not building a temple, pyramid, fortress or palace but lazing around under a shade tree with other humans, gossiping and making jokes--often at someone else's expense.

If that seems too timid and obvious to be un-PC, then how about this: the only activities which really rouse the blood of human males are:

1. killing something which is good to eat, but if not, killing something just for fun
2. starting a fire or otherwise destroying stuff
3. going fast, climbing high, etc. (yes, the space shuttle can be counted twice)
4. seeing what's going on in the next valley (prospects of danger, violence or easy pickings make it ever more attractive)
5. acquiring easy wealth or social status which can be translated into access to desirable females
6. playing some sort of game or equivalent "guys in the treehouse" activity which either offers hope of raising one's social status or at least strengthens bonds to the Leaders of the Pack, i.e. maintains current social status
7. learning/acquiring something which offers a competitive advantage in terms of wealth (mating prospects) or social status (mating prospects), preferably without requiring too much work (i.e. credit default swaps, flipping real estate, etc.)

Human females of course are also adventurous, curious and interested in raising wealth and social status; but while the guys in the treehouse are either daring each other to swim Turtle Creek or attempting to make homebrew out of juice, sap, crushed leaves, etc., under the tree the conversation drifts to essentials such as, who's hooking up with whom, who just broke up, who's pregnant, whatever happened to him/her, and what's up with the local leaders/celebrities.

Unsurprisingly, the Web offers opportunities for all of the above, mostly vicariously. The attractions of socializing, gossiping and networking are essentially human nature distilled to its essence.

That may seem trivial as we face the unprecedented challenges ahead (blah blah blah), but building trust and sharing successful strategies are perhaps the motivations behind the development of both spoken and written language/codes.

There are downsides, of course, to the Web. This is, after all, real life and not a game, so there are always non-trivial tradeoffs. Perhaps the most obvious--and despite this, perhaps the most profound--downside is the atrophying of actual real-live human socializing (e.g. bowling alone, few cook real food any more, etc.) in favor of its online simulacrum, and in the physical atrophying of action in the real world in favor of mouse-clicks and joystick manipulation.

I know many of you are like me, and you run out of patience for the screen after a few hours so you turn it off and go on a bicycle ride or do something in the real world with your physical being--pull weeds, water the roses, pluck some beans from the vines, try to fix that stupid vacuum cleaner whine, etc.

Although I haven't found any definitive study on this, clearly our brain chemistry/ activity is changed by watching TV or films, and changed in somewhat different ways by web-surfing, emailing, etc. It seems likely these changes are not net-net positive for our mental or physical health.

Rather like the old Woody Allen comedy in which cream puffs were discovered to be good for you, I would be quite surprised if living online 8 hours a day turns out to be wonderful for our mental and physical health.

A more subtle and therefore more pernicious downside is the flattening of knowledge by the simulacrum of "information." In one of my very first entries on this blog Flattening the Knowledge Curve: The "Googling" Effect (May 2005) (back when it had 30 visitors on a good day rather than 10,000), I suggested that Googling and the wealth of short segments of expertise/knowledge offered up by searches created an illusion of comprehensive knowledge--what we might call "working knowledge." This superficial "wealth" is actually a simulacrum of "the real thing" which can only be gathered by the reading of lengthy, contextually rich, coherently organized books or by experience in the real world.

As a free-lance journalist, I learned the necessity of background knowledge or context; but I also learned how easy it was to simulate an understanding of complex topics by eliciting the requisite "three quotes" from "experts" or "man/woman on the street" sources.

The Web thus offers up a tempting simulation of actual working knowledge. It's all too easy to read a few articles and then feel the comfort of having learned something valuable; in a university course, this is standard in introductory classes. But the overview and the excerpts are followed by book-length readings which provide the background needed for analytic or working skills.

For instance: energy is undoubtedly the key issue facing humanity as petroleum enters depletion. Without some grounding in the basics of oil geology and refining, I am doubtful that anyone can summon the necessary skepticism for pie-in-the-sky fantasies like offshore drilling or shale oil. Yes, those may well provide some petroleum in quantity but the numbers just don't add up: the U.S. burns 19.5 million barrels a day (down from 21 MBD a year ago) and the world consumes about 85 MBD. So adding 2 MBD is nice but it isn't going to make Peak Oil go away.

This is why I try to recommend books. Not everyone has time or interest to read a book or two on a subject, but we as a society/civilization have to be very careful not to confuse a mass of information with context-rich knowledge.

I don't claim to be an expert in Peak Oil (or anything else, for that matter) but I reckon these books offer a decent orientation to the issues:

The Future of Life

Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak

The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World

Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

The Solar Economy: Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Global Future

If you already have a deep knowledge base, then the Web is an astonishing resource. If you already know your way around Windows, for instance, all the fixes and hacks available online will be extremely useful. In trying to repair a friend's buggy Windoz machine (I know, a hopeless task), I couldn't figure out how to force the boot menu with Safe Mode to load on startup. A quick web search provided the answer.

But a novice would have been flummoxed by the instructions. We all know this, because we're all novices in many things. Take auto mechanics. I am undoubtedly one of the world's worst, most talentless mechanics, but I had to swap out a sensor in my Honda engine and online resources explained how to do it in a few lines of text. With this, I was able to go rent the tool from Kragen (free if you bought the sensor there) and get the job done.

But if you've never opened the hood of a vehicle or messed with wrenches, you would be hard-pressed indeed to use the "knowledge" that the web provided. The same can be said of cooking; without some real-world experience, a recipe is only an outline, not instruction.

These are just three of countless examples. Information is not knowledge, yet the Web offers a seductive confusion of the two.


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