Aristotle’s Ideal, Killed by Web (Part 3): Winifred Gallagher

No matter what specific chores they perform, all of our smart electronic tools produce novelty. From its beginnings, the Information Age has been about better, easier access to new data, more and more kinds all day long and wherever we go.

According to the University of California at San Diego’s appropriately named How Much Information project, we now consume about 100,000 words each day from various media. That’s a whopping 350 percent increase, measured in bytes, over what we crunched back in 1980.

There’s a lot of griping about TMI and ADD, but anthropologist Robert Kozinets suspects that most of it pertains to the workplace, where a person might indeed feel overwhelmed by unwelcome rings, pings and flashing lights.

“It’s almost as if we live in two worlds,” he says, “because in our leisure time, we’re more and more focused.” His favorite example is the expansion of fandom. These days, using the Internet, sports and celebrity fanatics can revel in almost instantaneous information.

Internet Expertise

Internet access, coupled with eminently portable laptops and smartphones, also liberates us in certain ways from traditional categories. The old boundaries between the home and the workplace or school grow fuzzier by the day. Thanks to blogs and websites like YouTube and Amazon, the lines between “amateur” and “professional” have also blurred: Anyone can consume culture and develop expertise, or hone their latent talents. About 15 percent of Americans now engage in serious photography, videography or filmmaking.

But now that the Internet provides so much art for free, many creative people worry about survival, as do the flagging industries that formerly supported them. Rather than seeing artists as an endangered species, however, marketing guru Seth Godin says, “They’re the only people who are going to make money 10 years from now, because the way you make money is from your ideas.”

Shepard Fairey earns millions each year, even though his art is free -- unless you want a signed, limited-edition piece or an image to put on a corporate T-shirt. Those cost a lot, says Godin, “but the only reason people pay is because his free ideas are everywhere.” Similarly, although the music business is ailing, there is more music than ever being made and listened to. “The digital thing took away the requirement that you need an orchestra to write a symphony,” Godin says.

Eric von Hippel, an innovation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, conducted research in England showing that individual consumers, often aided by the Internet, spent twice as much money over a three-year period as U.K. companies did on inventing new products and tweaking existing ones, particularly scientific tools and sports equipment. In a creative response to their generation’s disastrously high unemployment rate, an eclectic group of millionaires in their 20s who founded their own Internet businesses recently formed the nonprofit Young Entrepreneur Council, which advises others on how to start companies rather than wait around for traditional jobs.

‘Collective Intelligence’

That’s only the beginning. Information technology has given us an immediate, you-are-there way to see everything from revolutions to oil spills, and to react negatively or offer a helping hand. Our smart tools also pull us together in new communities oriented around important issues. The notion of “collective intelligence” first surfaced in the early 20th century, when American entomologist William Morton Wheeler observed that a colony of ants could cooperatively act as a “superorganism.” The term has gone through many iterations, but now mostly refers to the cognitive surge that occurs when people and their computers are connected to one another. Instead of just thinking singly, we cogitate as a hive.

Neophiliacs -- people who are strongly attracted to change and anything new -- are particularly attuned to the sociological transformations under way in the Information Age. One example is the way we think about culture: In what some critics view as a society ever more superficial, anthropologist Grant McCracken sees a tumultuous, yet vibrant, work in progress in which the old modifiers of “high” and “low” no longer apply. “These kids are so good at media that they don’t have any of that hesitation of ‘Oh, this isn’t something I can afford to take seriously -- it’s not high culture,’” McCracken says. “They gave up that ambivalence and embrace pop culture as culture, which makes a big difference in your life.”

A surprising number of works from this more expansive culture not only entertain us but also offer the kind of spiritual and philosophical uplift traditionally supplied by high art and religion. Hugely successful films such as “Avatar,” “Lord of the Rings” and the Harry Potter tales are full of bits of ancient wisdom, psychology, sociology and theology. Their fans are interested not only in sex and violence, but also in existential and moral questions. Such entertainments have become myths and sagas that, like the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, help people grapple with big issues, life’s meaning included. “From one perspective, Cain and Abel is just a story, too,” Kozinets says.

Some of our more fast-paced entertainments help us figure out our more complicated lives by providing new information on how other people cope. In the popular fascination with how the rich and famous handle marriage and adultery, obesity and anorexia, McCracken sees our desire to “audition the change” instead of trying it at home.

‘Experimental Creatures’

“By serving as vehicles of self-transformation,” he says, “the stars allow us to watch others explore life’s options almost like they were in a laboratory. They change themselves so that we don’t have to.” The Air Force puts an X before the names of its experimental aircraft, such as the X-15 fighter jet, and McCracken thinks that actress Lindsay Lohan deserves an X before her name, too. “She’s an experimental creature who becomes a kind of object lesson in transformational activity.”

Before the likes of “The Bachelor” and “Temptation Island,” says media scholar Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, our insight into what actually went on when people were romantically interested in each other was limited to personal experience and the secondhand, furtive and limited information gained from friends’ reports, overheard comments, steamy novels and scripted movies. As much as he enjoyed “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” he says, “those films are to real relationships what a Greek temple is to a ranch house.”

Its many benefits aside, the new technology supplies information, not knowledge or meaning. Aristotle said a society should be judged on its capacity for contemplation as well as productivity and pleasure. Facts alone are not enough to establish real understanding, which requires context and reflection.

As psychologist Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College says, “The experience that comes from thinking hard for a while about a subject is no longer available to some people, because they don’t stay on the task long enough to get to that point. Commitment has become a kind of dirty word.” The Internet’s capacity to generate superficial novelty is epitomized by the meme: a cultural tidbit, from a catchy anecdote to a joke to an image that spreads rapidly through society, now usually electronically.

Some memes are amusing, creative or informative, like the self-explanatory song called “United Breaks Guitars,” which caused a brief, but precipitous, drop in the airline’s stock. However, memes can also cause harm -- as racist and misogynistic ones do -- spread falsehoods and waste time.

Political Memes

“One thought in the mimetic community is that ideas are parasites that don’t care what they do to their host as long as it helps them to spread,” Godin says. “The Tea Party -- or the Communist Party -- is a political meme that doesn’t care if it destroys the country, because its only job is to reproduce.”

Technology’s way of undermining deep thinking was the focus of a much-remarked-upon front-page story in the New York Times titled “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.” The piece examined the consequences of the military’s increasing dependence on the Microsoft program, which magically reduces the most complicated matters to wonderfully clear talking points and charts. As Brigadier General H. R. McMaster, a veteran of the war in Iraq, put it, PowerPoint is “dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Even on campus, the hope that our society can satisfy Aristotle’s criterion of contemplation seems endangered. Original thinking arises from a foundation of serious learning, but college professors complain that the concept of research has contracted to the point that really good students go to the fourth or fifth page of a Google search, while most settle for the first one or two.

Neuroscientist Jane Joseph of the University of South Carolina is struck by the way in which some young people casually resort to plagiarism without realizing that it’s a problem: “They just paste in something they got online as an answer on a test. Then they say, ‘What? That’s wrong?’” Like the proverbial kids in the candy store, we neophiles need to think about our consumption of data in much the same way we think about food. A healthy information diet requires the self-control to focus on the nutritious new things that have long-term value and ignore the junk that compromises our mental and emotional fitness.

(Winifred Gallagher is the author of “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life” and “House Thinking.” This is the last in a three-part series of excerpts from her book “New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change,” to be published Jan. 2, 2012, by Penguin Press. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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    Winifred Gallagher at

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