The long form of webby knowledge
We have a very clear idea of what knowledge looks like in this culture, especially at its high end. At its low end, the picture gets fuzzy: Do endless baseball stats count as knowledge? How about obsessive details about the rich and pointless? Sure, but we wouldn’t want to show off our species to our new alien overlords by presenting to them someone who knows the complete history of Lady Gaga’s wardrobe. No, for Knowledge with a capital K, we very likely think about a thick tome, clad in leather, and containing within its pages a tightly thought, seamless argument that concludes with a sentence that begins, “Therefore, it is established that ...” Now that’s knowledge!
Which explains much of the despair about the threatened demise of books. We are losing (it is feared) not just a cherished way of embodying knowledge but knowledge’s peak experience. In the very next breath—if there’s time even to breathe—we hear about the shortening of the attention spans of our digital youth. Unable to follow a long argument, the adults of tomorrow are unable to think the deepest thoughts that have advanced our species.
I am not so worried. There’s plenty of room on the Net for long-form thinking. It just won’t look the same. Nor will it be replaced only by short-form thought—all of Kant reduced to a tweet. It will be web-form thought, which has its own advantages.
Long-form thought emerged not because it’s the natural pinnacle of thinking but because of the limitations of printed books. Books can only be so many pages long, and, more important, books are a disconnected medium. The author can put in footnotes, but readers have to be very highly motivated before they’ll track down the referenced work for themselves. So, authors have to try to put everything the reader will need between the covers. The argument has to be complete in itself.
That explains one particular element of long-form works that we take for granted although it’s actually pretty weird: the anticipation of objections. As if having a conversation with themselves, generations of authors have spoken for their readers in paragraphs that begin with phrases such as “Now, one might object that ..” or “One might think that ...” The author not only speaks for the reader, she answers the reader’s objections perfectly. The reader thus gets represented and shut up, all in the same authorial breath.
Authors have to do this because printed books are one-way media, which means they are deeply unnatural. But, our new medium is ridiculously multiway. Holding the floor for 300 pages is a possibility in this new medium, but it’s not what the medium is designed for. And even if you do post your 90,000-word argument on your site, and even if you turn off comments, it will be interrupted via inbound links from other sites ... if you’re lucky.
Knowledge in stages
The change in the medium from one-way and finite to multiway and infinite introduces changes in the nature of knowledge, thought and argument. Traditional long-form thought will stay with us, but web-form thought will be different.
Web-form thought is likely to be posted in stages, over time. At each step, readers will jump in with their own ideas, either on the author’s site, or by linking from their own. This can be distracting, of course, which is to say that you as an author don’t get to make an uninterrupted claim on your readers’ attention simply because that’s all the medium allows. On the other hand, you won’t have to anticipate their objections. We will raise them ourselves, thank you. We may also answer them ourselves. You as the author may wish that you had control over this, but really we’re doing you a favor. The sad truth of traditional long-form works is that the longer and more intricate they are, the more opportunities there are for readers to disagree, and thus to get off the bus before it pulls into the terminal. You could never anticipate every objection readers will have. The openness of the new medium means that more readers are likely to stay with you—their objections will be answered or at least acknowledged.
Web-form thought is also going to be transparent in a way that opaque book pages simply cannot be. The author of a web-form argument will put in lots of links. Some will be traditional footnotes, although they are likely to link directly to the source material, making it as easy as flicking your finger to read those sources. Some links will be for supplemental reading. Distractions? Yes, but also enrichments. And that simple act of pointing to a site you as the author find interesting or important creates a bond with your reader. Traditional long-form works are arguments that try to corner readers into a conclusion. Web-form works, with their links to other authors and other ideas, are collaborations with the reader—shared explorations that the author thinks leads to particular conclusions. But, even if we don’t stay on the bus, the author wants to point out to us other interesting locales that we can appreciate together.
Web-form arguments are truly webby. One author may initiate it and may remain the focus of it. But, by definition, they spread out across the Web, pulling in strangers, spawning knots of conversation in other languages and about other points. They lack the sort of definition that book covers provide. That is a strength and a weakness.
There are advantages to working within the constraints of a printed book, just as there are to writing poetry within the constraints of rhyme. Long-form argumentation can be elegant, beautiful. Web-form argumentation tends toward delight, rather than beauty. Fortunately, there’s plenty of room left on the Net for every sort of knowledge.