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An equal and opposite reaction

This article appears in the issue July/August 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 7]


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I've let my Marxism studies lapse ever since the breakup of the USSR killed all the good job opportunities for career communists, but somewhere someone talks about the dangerous period when the old guard becomes even more old-guard-ish as the forces of reform become well nigh undeniable. And that's where we are in various fronts of the digital revolution.

You can see the same basic movement in three areas: corporate Net use, the media and education.

It's easiest to see in education, especially if you have kids in school. The connectedness of the Net has clearly changed the way our kids learn. The default for many of them is to do their homework with whoever else is on their buddy list. Collaborating on assignments just seems natural. What doesn't feel natural to them is memorizing stuff. Committing to memory the state capitals or the order of the presidents makes as much sense to them as memorizing your address book does to you.

This isn't simply a change in the list of Things to Memorize. It actually is part of a larger change away from the "container" view of knowledge that says that just as we judge a book by the richness of its content, so too we should judge people as knowers by how much knowledge they contain. In the age of connectedness, though, Web pages are judged by how many other good pages they point to, and children who can retain lots of content ought to be lauded for their memories but ought not be confused with ideal learners.

Yet, how does our educational system react? Our governments--national and state--impose more and stricter standardized exams that test our children's retention of standardized content. Weeks of class time are given over to this testing, and, worse, the entire educational system is bent to a very old idea of what constitutes intelligence. We are teaching our children an idea of learning and knowledge that not only grinds their curiosity into the floorboards as if it were a cockroach, but that also ill prepares them for the work world they'll be entering.

In short: As connectedness transforms knowledge, our education system is swinging--running--in the other direction.

You can see the same movement in the mainstream media's reaction to the Internet. Of course, the media have taken many progressive and helpful steps that take advantage of the Internet. But they are simultaneously moving in the opposite direction. For example, The New York Times recently announced that we will no longer be able to read their op-ed columnists for free. Of course, The Times is within its rights to do that; The Times doesn't owe the world free op-eds any more than it has to buy us all a beer, You can imagine The Times' thinking: "Our op-ed writers are enormously popular on the Web, so why give it away for free? Their value is in what they say, so let's have people pay for that value."

The Times is in a predicament. In one sense, the op-ed content is indeed valuable. But The Times' larger value is as a force that informs us--it's the paper of record--and shapes the national conversation. You can't do that if you shut your writers up behind a pay wall. That lowers The Times' cultural value. In fact, it feels like The Times is asserting its old-timey values in the face of the new ones. That's its right, but it's a step backward and it ultimately it will decrease The Times' influence, relevance and value.

When it comes to companies, obviously many are doing bold and innovative things with the Internet. But now and then a company stamps its foot and slams the door on the new connectedness. For example, one very large company recently made a big announcement about a new direction it's taking. I urged them to set up a weblog well before the announcement so their internal experts could get some standing in the Blogosphere. That way, when the announcement came, the bloggers would know where to go to ask questions and would trust the people giving the answers. Nope. The company wanted to control the release of all the information, so it didn't want employees out talking about the topic without a script. That sounds like a prudent course, but it's actually high risk: It increased the chances that its big announcement would have little impact. Which is exactly what happened.

I could tell you about another nameless company that believed that if, instead of blogging, it posted carefully written white papers in PDF format on its Web site, it would actually influence the global conversation more. Haha.

These are fear-based reactions to the change that has already happened. The retrenchment may feel good for a moment, but it's bad policy and it will not stand.


David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" , e-mail self@evident.com.


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