I went down to the river to scan

Finally overcoming the irony, I managed to summon enough attention to read “Information-rich and attention-poor”, an essay in last week’s Globe and Mail. It’s really quite insightful, and makes clear what so much abundant information is doing to the way we view knowledge:

“Knowledge is evolving from a “stock” to a “flow.” Stock and flow – for example, wealth and income – are concepts familiar to accountants and economists. A stock of knowledge may be thought of as a quasi-permanent repository – such as a book or an entire library – whereas the flow is the process of developing the knowledge. The old Encyclopedia Britannica was quintessentially a stock; Wikipedia is the paradigmatic example of flow. Obviously, a stock of knowledge is rarely permanent; it depreciates like any other form of capital. But electronic information technology is profoundly changing the rate of depreciation…Knowledge is becoming more like a river than a lake, more and more dominated by the flow than by the stock. What is driving this?”

The essay describes very well a problem I’ve been feeling. Well, a change more than a problem per se, but something I’ve sensed. In fact, the author deals with the perception that the shift from a lake to a river is problematic.

“Those of us who are still skeptical might recall that Plato, in the Phaedrus, suggested that writing would “create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it.” This is a striking example of a particular kind of generation gap in which masters of an established paradigm can only see the shortcomings, and not the potential, of the truly novel.”

I’m very comfortable dealing with this river of information. I’ve jumped right in, obviously, by scanning hundreds of news feeds every day at home and at work and picking out the relevant bits, but I feel like I’ve trained for that my whole life by being a generalist…I like knowing something about a lot of things, and knowing a lot about some things, so all this access to information is kind of like mother’s milk to me. I’ve never been the kind of person who memorized things, I’ve always assumed I could look them up or just figure something out again when I needed to. Now it sometimes feels like I can’t remember enough, especially when I’m at work and dealing with people who still value institutional knowledge.

It is frustrating sometimes, that I can’t sit down and focus on something very often. I find that needing to focus for an hour on conceptual work requires that I move to an empty meeting room, or even a Starbucks, just so I get away from the computer and the need to watch the river. That often means printing something so I can work offline, which I hate. So I figure I have three options:

  1. Build a nice, easy ‘dam’ switch on the computer that lets me disable Outlook, Twitter, Google Reader, IM and my phone for an hour or so
  2. Find a way to work on a paper-like form that doesn’t require killing trees. Maybe it’s time for me to get a tablet?
  3. Quit my job and find something that never requires any original thought or conceptual analysis, just parroting of the information I see which adds little or no value to it. But I’ve never really wanted to be a newscaster, so I guess that’s out.

0 thoughts on “I went down to the river to scan

  1. That wasn’t memorization, that was familiarity. The Star Wars movies and first 7 seasons of The Simpsons are part of my brain now, like walking or tying my shoes.

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