The flattening of knowledge by the simulacrum of “information”

Charles Hugh Smith, of the recommended Two Minds blog (October 18), has a review of what makes the web so positive as a human tool, but also covers the drawbacks.

His main argument is that the use of the web requires deep knowledge, in order to sift through quality.

C. Smith writes:

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.”

He adds that:

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. “

2 Comments The flattening of knowledge by the simulacrum of “information”

  1. AvatarZbigniew Lukasiak

    In principle I don’t see why there should be any difference between a book-length reading and many short articles/notes on the same subjects. I would expect that many short pieces would provide a more balanced view then reading a book from just one author.

    I do understand that the simulation argument is about reading in toto less than a full book – but it also suggests that short pieces are inherently worse than a full length book. What if someone read a book divided into short articles?

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