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. 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.