How MicroPublishing Is Killing The Nuances of Knowledge

Posted on May 3, 2009
Filed Under Business, Critical Thinking |

Warren Buffett once wrote that “conventional wisdom is often long on convention and short on wisdom.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot since SXSW because I left the conference shocked at the conventional wisdom about the web that permeated the panels. I saw very little debate or controversy. I saw very little discussion about cutting edge ideas. What I experienced was a lot of social media masturbation, with a side dose of idol worship and groupthink about how things have to be done online. The conference tag line could be “let’s all get together and talk about how great we all are.”

I wasn’t able to attend the conference in 2008, so I have to compare it to SXSW of 2 years ago. By that standard, the quality of useful information is definitely declining. Part of the blame, I think, lies with Twitter and other micropublishing initiatives, but to understand why, you need to understand the origins of chaos theory.

From the wikipedia entry:

An early pioneer of the theory was Edward Lorenz whose interest in chaos came about accidentally through his work on weather prediction in 1961.[16] Lorenz was using a simple digital computer, a Royal McBee LGP-30, to run his weather simulation. He wanted to see a sequence of data again and to save time he started the simulation in the middle of its course. He was able to do this by entering a printout of the data corresponding to conditions in the middle of his simulation which he had calculated last time.

To his surprise the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before. Lorenz tracked this down to the computer printout. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. This difference is tiny and the consensus at the time would have been that it should have had practically no effect. However Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome.

Take note of that last part, “small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome.”

Can you really sum up anything important in 140 characters? Not for most topics. But we have full conversations and debates through tweets. We discuss important issues in 140 characters. In some ways it is good that we are forced to be succinct, but what is often lost is the nuances surrounding certain types of knowledge and, as we know from our story about chaos theory, nuance can matter.

Because we no longer take the time to appreciate information at its full depth, we end up with the “headline version” understanding of ideas. That often leads to one-size-fits-all ideas about certain topics. I run into this all the time in business when people tell me some belief they have about how to run a business that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t accept absolutes about financial structure, marketing practices, operational theories, HR mindsets, etc because it really depends on the economics and structure of that industry as to whether or not certain ideas are appropriate. But when you learn business from your tweet stream, you don’t exactly end up with a deep understanding of complex issues about business.

I’m not knocking twitter. It’s useful. But when we elevate it to the level of our primary information source, and we cut back dramatically on our other information sources (because let’s face it, twitter can be a time sink), we do our minds a dis-service. I’m tired of watching popularity driven soundbites converge in an availability cascade and lead us to groupthink and simplistic versions of the truth. The Buddha said that “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” If all you do is read the same things as everyone else, take in the same information, and think about the same things, you will never really stand out or have any original ideas.

I’m not encouraging you to drop twitter. I’m encouraging you to slow down and not to worry about missing something. Keep tweets in their place, and make sure you continue to feed your mind with sources that are deeper and richer. Sometimes nuance is important. Don’t let it get lost in the shallowness of microconversation.

Comments

17 Responses to “How MicroPublishing Is Killing The Nuances of Knowledge”

  1. Kevin on May 3rd, 2009 4:18 pm

    Rob can you sum this up for me I stopped reading at 140 characters?

    Beyond Twitter that has been going on for awhile. Public discourse, debate, and discussions have been on a decline. You can look at talk radio where your entire thought has to be crushed into a 30 second snippet when you call in. Bush started giving speeches with a backdrop that had keywords or the general message of the speech behind him because his team knew that was what people would take away when they saw a clip of the speech on the news.

    Everything is a sound byte, snippet, or a tweet….

  2. Chris Hall on May 3rd, 2009 8:45 pm

    Rob,

    I see twitter as a place that you described in your post, but I also see it as a place to share links to well formed ideas. Not to speak in absolutes ;), but I see the blogosphere as the place for continued, in depth, conversations like this one around a specific topic.

    Then the question becomes how does one get everyone who cares about that niche topic together to talk about it in one place? I don’t know that forums, as they are currently constructed, are the answer…

    But that would be a cool concept to explore.

    -chris

  3. Austin on May 4th, 2009 1:06 pm

    Let them tweet. If it deadens them, so much the better. Those that can see through the valueless hype will focus on building lasting stuff of value. And have the last laugh.

  4. Rob on May 4th, 2009 1:46 pm

    Chris,
    Agreed re: the good uses of twitter. But with respect to a place for conversation, I don’t think there will ever be a central place. The web is becoming more decentralized, and conversations are becoming more fragmented. The good thing is that overall, more people are participating.

  5. Elizabeth Burton on May 6th, 2009 7:10 pm

    As a one-woman show at my small press who nevertheless has come to accept that if some of the books I publish are to be marketed I will be the one marketing them, Twitter provides me with a channel to do that while at the same time giving me access to interesting people and sources of information I would otherwise not have had.

    I also disagree that one can’t have a discourse via Twitter. I did just that with a bookseller on Sunday. If 140 characters don’t suffice, there are established punctuation marks that allow you to carry a thought over more than one tweet, notably the humble ellipsis…

    That’s not to say Twitter is the only way to market, but for someone on a limited time budget, it’s a godsend.

  6. Birger Hartung on May 6th, 2009 8:57 pm

    Hi Rob,
    I think you are absolutely right. The technical things are speed and noise - and they have nothing to do with conversation. I would add, that the whole realtime schmeer is driven by an ideology of relation between technology and communication. And it’s wrong. What do you think?

  7. paul on May 10th, 2009 2:43 pm

    Twitter is much more then 140 characters, demonstrated by the link that brought me here.

    SXSW Interactive was first for Web designers, then developers. Bloggers were the next addition and we popularized the conference by blogging about it and that attracted the social media sales men and woman in ‘09.

  8. Joe Hall on May 10th, 2009 3:18 pm

    Great Post!

    we no longer take the time to appreciate information at its full depth

    I agree tremendously, however it is important to note that microblogging like regular blogging is made with hyper text. As such it can be linked and can create path ways to larger discussions and ideas. For example that’s how I found this very article!

  9. gregorylent on May 10th, 2009 3:48 pm

    where does nuance come for anything? subtlety of awareness. you can get the whole story of life over the dinner table if awareness is subtle enough.

    it has nothing much to do with the medium. that is just a tool of the times.

    imagine what writing did to story telling. killed it.

    so?

  10. fantomaster on May 10th, 2009 3:49 pm

    Good, thoughtful piece, and generally speaking I couldn’t agree more.

    In many respects, Twitter is indeed be the crowd sourced equivalent to a tabloid headlines repository.

    But at the end of the day, as with all things online it’s about proper discriminating usage.

    E.g.
    1. If all you rely on in terms of informing yourself about what’s going on is Twitter, you’re likely to get dumbed down even further, the longer this goes on.

    2. If all you rely on is Google search, you’re likely to reduce yourself to a mere Google muppet, hand fed by our common Information Overlord.

    3. If you insist on clinging to your attention deficit problem rather than doing something about it, don’t whine if people who do will out-compete you in just about all walks of life.

    No absolutes in a relative, constantly shifting world, of course. But staying ahead will always require looking beyond the obvious - and not falling for the purportedly easiest way out every time.

  11. Troy McConaghy on May 10th, 2009 4:44 pm

    I’m not sure what you intended to show by including the aside on the origins of chaos theory.

    Did you mean that a small message (e.g. one sent via Twitter) can cause a large change in the future state of the world? Are you saying we should be sending longer, more nuanced messages, so that their long-term consequences are better controlled (a difficult task, given our limited ability to predict long-term outcomes)?

    Did you mean that the summary (“small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome.”) doesn’t capture the nuances of chaos well enough?

    The latter interpretation is certainly true. For example, the simple system dx/dt = x (where x is a function of time) is sensitive to initial conditions but isn’t chaotic. You didn’t say anything about that, though — how it takes more than sensitivity to initial conditions to make a system chaotic — how the summary omits crucial nuances…

    I finished reading this post essentially confused, with little more than a slightly-renewed frustration with tweets and soundbites.

  12. Twitted by joehall on May 10th, 2009 7:53 pm

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  13. Twitted by 1977ub on May 10th, 2009 7:54 pm

    [...] This post was Twitted by 1977ub - Real-url.org [...]

  14. Tech introvert on May 10th, 2009 8:04 pm

    Ironic, I found this article via Twitter. (It was picked up and pushed by a news bit). Twitter is an index, serving up links to ideas and opinions. Conversation happens elsewhere ( friendfeed). Arguing via Twitter is useless, many understand this.

  15. Dave Gallagher on May 11th, 2009 12:58 am

    Rob,

    You got me thinking about extroverts in a different way with your post. Is it possible that Twitter aligns well with extroverted people’s way of thinking, which is to think out loud? Introverts, on the other hand, may find the service clashing with their way of thinking, which involves quiet time dedicated to long, focused thought.

    It would be interesting to see if someone ever conducts a Twitter introvert/extrovert study…

    ———-

    As for thinking in absolutes (which I just did above ;) ), I have a theory about this. A news commentator mentioned the other day that President Obama wanted to pick a Supreme Court judge who didn’t “abstract” individuals away from the effect laws would have on them. He wants a judge who thinks deeply about the ramifications of legal decisions, along with any “shades of grey” which would trickle down to real people.

    My theory is that thinking in absolutes, and thinking in abstraction, is an easy way for our minds to deal with a particular issue, and that it’s a technique used by “lazy” minds to efficiently deal with the world.

    It’s so much simpler, really, to plop something into either the “ying” or “yang” bucket. Abstract something, label it as ying or yang, draw up the differences between buckets, and base your decision on that.

    Intelligent minds, or perhaps it’s better to say “minds which are more wise”, realize the limitations of absolutes and abstraction. It can lead to poor decision making, racism, intolerance (you’re either with us or against us!), and many other negative things. Shades of grey, while not always comfortable to deal with, do exist.

    On the other hand, absolutes/abstraction can lead to a fast decision; in some instances this could be beneficial. Particularly in programming, it’s very useful to think in absolutes and abstraction. But it’s also useful to realize its limitations.

    I think the best minds switch back and forth between shades of grey, and absolute-/abstraction-based thinking.

    Most people don’t choose this path because it’s hard. They go with the flow, embrace group-thought, and really never learn how to think for themselves. Sound bytes, quick headlines, and top-ten lists let them easily plop things into pre-defined buckets, which they can then make easy decisions from.

  16. Mike on May 11th, 2009 11:54 pm

    Rob,

    The problem is that almost nothing of real value in terms of intellectual discourse can be accomplished in a sound bite or 140 characters. Things devolve into empty slogans and echo chambers. I think that’s the phenomenon you saw at SWSX. And it’s not healthy. But we’ll see…

    Mike

  17. Rob on May 16th, 2009 12:41 pm

    Troy,
    The point of chaos theory was to use an analogy to show that nuance can matter. If our communications are stripped of nuance, that can have large and long lasting effects.

    Rob

  • About Rob

    Rob is co-founder of Backupify.com. He likes value investing, the Rolling Stones, college basketball, artificial intelligence, economic history and people who think independently.