circa 1994

I had an important realization the other night: I lived half my life in the time before the web, and became an adult exactly as the web began.  Put another way, I was taught how to read, think, and learn in the epoch of the book, and as soon as I was released into adulthood, I found myself in the epoch of the web.  This encounter with the web would turn out to be more than simply another step on my way to knowledge.  The encounter with the web was a break with all I had been taught thus far.  And we--the people who are still my age, and today make-up the majority of those who are building the web--would be the only ones to fully appreciate this rupture  Ours is an existence of memory and forgetting, with two separate ways to knowledge beneath our feet.  The line of the future is drawn directly through us, and pins us to a particular moment in time and history.

I had this thought while Luke and I were meeting to discuss what we always discuss--the web, the book, reading, thinking, teaching, and parenting.  We had been relating to each other some stories about things that were going on in our respective classes.  The two of us have been experimenting with a rethinking of traditional approaches to learning, one which privileges writing on the web done within the context of community.  We teach very different subjects, but sharing a similar background, we end up in much the same place.  I might summarize it by saying that we both seek to engender an authentic experience of thinking, in our students and ourselves, and to do it through engagement with texts and the web.  Luke's texts are literary, and mine are source code.

Luke had just finished describing to me some of the challenges he faces getting his students to read in ways that understand reading as more than simply the act of running one's eyes across and down the page (I'll pick-up what I mean by this in another post).  Where I've had the most success with this, it has come from teaching without preparation.  Or, to put it another way, in doing things live with my students, and calling on my previous preparation (i.e., knowledge) vs. anything I've done in the days before a lecture.  As often as I can, I try to prepare myself instead of preparing my lecture.  I often don't know what I'll do exactly until I walk into the room.

Such was the case a week ago, as I came to class with the idea of teaching the students how a particular technology (XPCOM) is implemented in Mozilla's source code.  A week previous, one of my students had been frustrated to find that an assignment worked fine on her Windows laptop, but failed on my Mac.  She was convinced that it was my Mac, and I was equally convinced that it was her code.  After a long debugging session, we found that she was in fact correct--Firefox does not implement the code she needs on Mac.  This was an important outcome, as it allowed us to trade roles and for me to be wrong.  Rather than ducking the issue, I would embrace this failure, and I would now be able to base my next class on it, using it as the origin for a series of questions I would ask with and in front of the students.

Can we confirm that it is not implemented?  Why is this not implemented?  Can we locate where it is missing in the Mac code?  Can we locate where it is implemented for Windows?  What can we see about the differences between the implementation and the missing implementation?  Can we imagine a path to implementing this?  Can we make some progress along this path?

Within the space of two hours we were able to do all of the above, and get ourselves to the point of knowing what needed to happen next in order to finish this.  One student even agreed to take on the remainder of the work.  But this was not the most important outcome of the class.  That came half-way through with the question of a third student.

As I was asking my questions, I was simultaneously searching and moving through lots of source code.  I would ask the students, based on our current question, to look at sections of code and search results and to tell me what they found interesting.  What should we look at next?  One student put up his hand:

How do you know what is interesting to look at?  How do you learn that?  I'm sure this is off topic, but I'm wondering.
Off topic, indeed!  My greatest wish as a professor is to be so taken off topic!  Here, among so many questions about source code, we had hit upon the only thing worth learning in this process: his question is the question.  I followed him off-topic, and pulled up an interview I'd been reading earlier that day with Umberto Eco:
Google makes a list, but the minute I look at my Google-generated list, it has already changed. These lists can be dangerous -- not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating. [emphasis mine]
There is much going on here (and even more in the interview as a whole).  First, notice how Eco positions himself with respect to Google, to the kind of lists Google makes available, and also to the group of people who consume such lists (i.e., the young).  Eco has acquired his knowledge in another way.  His choice of word is significant: in acquiring knowledge, he has built it up, he has obtained it.  It is his, he has sought it out, he has kept it.  Knowledge is something one collects for oneself, and anyone who has read Eco knows that he has collected a great deal of it!

The tragedy of Google is that its is ever changing.  As soon as a list is returned by Google, it is outdated.  The knowledge Google provides, if we can call it that, is always provisional.  It is incomplete, even in having been complete, since it will differ the next time I ask for it.  I can no longer rely on what I can collect, for the very notion of the collection has been found lacking.  The authoritative collection is, literally, without an author.

Google requires me to make due with the choices I have.  It asks me to pick.  With Google I am forced to make decisions and discriminate among those which are given.  I will have to do this again the next time I ask the question, so there is no point in collecting what I find.  I can no longer afford to collect--it's not practical to collect when you are always given everything.  Instead, I must throw out.

These ideas put me in mind of something else I'd read not long ago by Ben Fry, in which he discusses the work of Mark Lombardi:

I think Lombardi's work encapsulates two themes that are important for the future of improve the discourse surrounding data, we must disavow our fascination with the intricate and complicated by learning how to throw things out. [emphasis mine]
My students told me about what it's like to be told that your generation is dumb.  The media and other institutions love to discount the so-called Facebook generation as ignorant, illiterate, and unmotivated.  But there is something more interesting going on here, and these two quotes point to the movement from one era to another.  Even though it happened on either side of the dividing line drawn by the web, both Eco and my students came to maturity within one of the two epochs I described.  Both inherited their cultural, social, and intellectual modes from their youth.  Eco's 70,000 books were collected throughout a lifetime of thinking and working in a particular way.  But as large as his library is, it is ridiculous to compare 70, 70,000, or 700,000 books to the overwhelming amount of text among which my students find themselves on the web.  We're talking about a change that is something more than simply an order of magnitude.

As a result, the way each group engages with knowledge, how they think, how they work, is quite different.  For the generation of the book, knowledge is something you build (like a library).  You begin without, and you add to what you know.  You quite literally collect information.  For the web generation, you begin with everything (your origin is the result) and you get rid of things.  Learning about a topic doesn't mean reading what is written on it--that's not possible any more, in a world where all knowledge is simultaneously available.  You don't collect knowledge, you learn how to throw it out.  Both ways allow one to come to a core set of information, but the route is exactly opposite.

It means that a student in my class has never needed to know things in the same way that I did at school.  I can remember being taught how to use all manner of bibliographic apparatus.  I was trained to think in the dying days of the age of the book.  I had to collect knowledge.  I had to take things away with me from what I found, because I might not be able to get them again.  The book I needed was only available in another city, I'd have to make a request to get information stored in an archive on microfiche, I'd have to photocopy a magazine article because it couldn't be take out of the library.  Not quite two decades later, it sounds funny to say these things, they seem so far away and from another time.

Today my students don't need to learn knowledge in order to take it away with them.  Information, at least for the time being, is not scarce any more.  I can access materials, like this interview with Eco or the essay by Fry, from anywhere I happen to be.  In order to write this now I had to go and find both pieces of writing again.  I never bothered to print or save them--my browser knows where I found them: "Eco" and "Fry" was all I needed and I had them, exactly as they were.  Their availability to be brought to bear on a lecture I'm giving or a piece of writing I'm creating is not dependent on my ability to keep them.  They are always already there.

I'm writing this from within the age of the web, but I wasn't "born digital."  I'm in this world, but not of it.  I was raised in and by the world of the book.  The web is something that happened to me when I was old enough to see it happen, but young enough to still embrace it.  It is not, as my grandmother says, "something that wasn't meant for me."  It is not the background of my existence, as it is for my students, who have never known another reality.

The web is always foregrounded for me.  It is always not how I was taught to think, and yet it is how I have come to think.  I am unable to let go of myself totally to its safekeeping.  I had no one show me how to use the web.  I had to teach myself, and in teaching myself, I learned to pour myself into creating it as a way of connecting it to what I knew.  I stand and bear witness to the moment in time when the world changed from collecting to throwing away.  I am not nostalgic.  I am in two worlds at once.  And I am not alone.  I am surrounded by people who are, by and large, currently responsible for the web, who are building it.  We build it for people who know nothing other than the web.  We are both satisfied and dissatisfied with it, always remembering what it is not, always aware of how much more it is.  It is at issue for is.  It is broken, and so something we fix.  We are the last of the ones taught to think in the way of the book, and are now alone to understand how to think that way in the context of the web.

So how does one learn how to pick-out what is interesting?  I was never taught to do it.  Like me, my students will find that the web destroys the possibility of learning from teaching, and replaces it with the need to learn on one's own.  The web gives us everything, but only provisionally, requiring that we ask and re-ask the same questions.  The web brings to an end the age of the expert.  My students are the first generation to stand wholly within the tragedy of Google.  But much has been done with tragedy alone,  as Eco reminded us in The Name of the Rose.  And much can yet be done.

Show Comments