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What I’m reading: the triumph of human capacity

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture (2014) / Erez Aiden, Jean-Baptiste Michel
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (2017) / Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach
Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (2017) / Thomas Friedman
The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016) / David Sax

These books just make me happy. I want to dig deeper into the topics they cover (and I already have – Sloman and Fernbach have written a number of academic papers together and I went hunting them and actually ended up citing one in a paper I wrote toward the end of the semester, and I’ve bookmarked further reading on a number of organizations mentioned by both Friedman and Sax, but haven’t gotten back to them yet).

First up: Uncharted, written by the guys who invented the Google Ngram Viewer, tells the story of how that fantastic tool came to be and plays around with it some. It’s a good solid introduction to the underlying concepts of digital humanities as a discipline, and makes some interesting suggestions about the direction that amateur citizen scholarship may go in the humanities and social sciences in the age of big data. (Anybody can conduct and write up a data summary! With open access repositories, anybody can, effectively, publish.)

I find Ngram Viewer to be a tremendously useful tool for historical writing research, primarily for things like tracking emergence of slang. I’m working on a project right now set in 1942, at a time when military slang was just beginning to but had not yet fully entered the mainstream American vernacular, and striking that note correctly is tremendously important.

For example.

But there are deeper uses for this simple and elegant app too: the chapters on censorship and the cooling effect on art and philosophy in oppressive regimes are fascinating. And the authors are very good about explaining how the data is both constrained and illuminated by the limits of the data set (the books from library collections scanned by the Google Books project) but I wish they’d talked a bit more about the data set and library collections and the archival profession and the role of librarians and archivists; one gets the impression from reading this book that the books were just sitting there waiting for a couple of bright guys from California to come along and do the discovery, and the truth is of course more complicated than that. The tool is cool, but the tool is neither the data nor the archive, and a popular work illuminating the relationship between those three things in more depth would be pretty fantastic.

The Knowledge Illusion is co-written by two research cognitive psychologists, and is more or less a for-popular-audiences summary of research they’ve been doing together for about ten years, around rational analysis and functional fallacies in decision-making and particularly circling on the extended knowledge and the illusions of comprehension and explanatory depth.

Knowledge is complicated. How do we know what we know – what is the mechanism of knowledge creation and retention? How do we “know” what we know – what is the mechanism of self-awareness and intentionality? How do we know what we “know” – how do we discern the known from the unknown, and self-assess depth and accuracy of knowledge, and parse and prioritize knowledge-seeking?

We are mapping monkeys: the process of constructing mental models of the physical, social, and conceptual world, manipulating and sharing those models, constantly comparing them to the observable world and adjusting them (and adjusting the observable world to more closely match the model we desire) is very close to the center of what makes us human. And the metamap – the mental model we hold of our own landscape of knowledge – is just as abstracted, simplified, and imperfect as our mental models of anything else.

Every librarian knows this phenomenon. Intimately.

In particular, the authors say, we tend to overestimate 1.) how accurately and completely we comprehend a concept and 2.) how much of the information we have access to is actually stored in our own, individual, personal brains. We have secondhand access to a tremendous amount of knowledge about the world, and well-worn pathways to retrieving it, and so we think we “know” it. (And we do, in a sense – but we don’t, in a different sense, and in order to talk intelligently about it we need to be able to make that distinction.) Knowledge is embodied, it’s stored in digital and physical texts and encoded in our physical environment, and, in particular, it’s shared. We don’t need to retain information that a trusted, close companion retains, which is why married couples specialize their negotiated information-management duties over time (and why people self-assess a much higher level of personal, independent retention of the information that their spouses actually curate. Men in particular think they know what they actually rely on their wives to know, because of the way we socialize women to manage information on behalf of their partners, although it certainly goes both ways.

Generally, if we are confident that we can access information about a concept, then we overestimate how well we understand it (the illusion of comprehension) and how well we can apply it and convey it to others (the illusion of explanatory depth). Which is why we don’t know how much we know about a thing until we’re forced to explain it without aids.

But is being able to explain a thing without aids really the only valid measure of knowledge? Are social networks of information-sharing, embodied and experiential awareness and body memory, information literacy and information-seeking skills, and competent prioritization of personal knowledge curation other ways of looking at and understanding knowledge? What’s the relationship between knowledge and trust? Do we “trust” the digital systems we increasingly rely on? Do we trust ourselves without them?

From an LIS standpoint, this is a fascinating and important book and I think it should make its way into the MLIS instructional canon, but it’s perhaps even more interesting just from a human standpoint.

I loved this quote so much I used it in three different places in coursework this past semester:

Humans have an ability that no other machine or animal cognitive system does: Humans can share their attention with someone else.When humans interact with one another, they do not merely experience the same event; they also know that they are experiencing the same event. And this knowledge that they are sharing their attention changes more than the nature of the experience; it also changes what they do and what they’re able to accomplish in conjunction with others.

Sharing attention is a crucial step on the road to being a full collaborator in a group sharing cognitive labor, in a community of knowledge. […] The knowledge is not just distributed; it is shared. Once knowledge is shared in this way, we can share intentionality; we can jointly pursue a common goal. A basic human talent is to share intentions with others so that we accomplish things collaboratively.


I’ve always enjoyed Thomas Friedman’s social commentary, and Thank You For Being Late (isn’t that a wonderful title?) is very much a follow-on to Hot, Flat, and Crowded – “okay, this is the world we’re stuck with because we built it, now how do we live in it?”

The title refers to that particular phenomenon when everyone is careening from one thing to another, tightly planned, but one person’s schedule goes slightly awry – traffic, a meeting running over, whatever – and they arrive to say, “I’m so sorry for being late,” and the other person says, “no, thank you – it gave me ten unplanned minutes to slow down and think.” We don’t plan those moments into our day; we catch them where we can, and not often enough.

The rate of change and increase of complexity in the world, Friedman says, is accelerating on three axes: technology advancement; exchange (of both ideas and currency) and shifting balance points of natural systems. There’s always change, there has always been, but these changes have been, for some time now and particularly in the last ten years, overtaking society’s collective capability to integrate and adapt. But there are lots of individuals and institutions who thrive in this environment, who are staying ahead of the curve. What can we learn from them? Is adaptiveness a teachable skill? How much chaos can we swallow, and can we acclimate to ever-more, riding the wave rather than being swamped by it?

That was one of the overarching themes of one of my classes this semester, and I spent a lot of time mulling on these questions and looking at current research. This is one of the challenges that libraries are struggling with: people are more information-literate, sophisticated, and savvy, but their information needs are legitimately more demanding. They come to us when they’re already in the weeds, and we need to be much more knowledgeable and faster and smarter and more broadly informed than we’ve ever been to field all of the increasingly difficult questions we’re being hit with. People are learning that they need to continually learn to succeed or even keep pace and it’s our job to help them figure out how to make that happen.

So how do we do that? How do we keep our balance in a world that’s moving under our feet?

People are the answer. Interpersonal connections, individual expertise, collaborative innovation, cultural competence. All of the stuff that Sloman and Fernbach talk about in The Knowledge Illusion – we become more self-aware of how much of our knowledge is communal, and by being efficient and smooth at accessing extended knowledge, we expand our capability to specialize and develop individual expertise, which we share, and others draw on that, and we create a community of highly skilled people sharing with each other, comfortable with that. Humility, and comfort with what we don’t know, lets us more powerfully leverage what we do know to our own benefit and that of those around us. Machines do some of the heavy lifting; big data does some of the heavy lifting. And we focus on what we’re good at, which is the personal, the human connection, the synthesis of disparate ideas, the nuanced strategic thinking, the experiential narrative.

And that brings us finally to David Sax, whose take on reaction to the accelerating world is a little different than Friedman’s but harmonious with it.

Real things and why they matter. That’s an appealing idea. The a priori assumption that real things do matter. There’s a lot of emotion tied up in that, but sentimentality doesn’t pay the bills. In a print-on-demand, streaming-downloadable, always-on, always-stored, mass-produced world, are hand-sold, hand-crafted, intentionally imperfect real objects actually economically viable?

Abosolutely. In fact, Sax argues – compellingly – they can be more viable than the alternative. Although the markets are small, the profit margin on film cameras, small-run print magazines, vinyl records, and small-press books sold in independent bookstores is significantly higher than their high-volume counterparts – in fact, there is a profit margin, which in some digital industries there simply isn’t. “Vinyl never died,” he says. Content encoded in tangible format has persistence, is passed from hand to hand, is referred to over and over. “If we have an article on a website or the iPad,” magazine publisher Andrew Tuck says, “people see it once.”

(The truth is more complicated, of course. As Aiden and Michel demonstrated, text-as-data finds new life; digital texts get passed hand to hand through social networking, saved, shared, reexamined. And paper gets thrown away. But the easier and cheaper it becomes to publish digitally, the more the paper market shifts away from ephemeral content; the more persistence becomes a positive value judgment in the production of physical texts. We now buy books because we want to hold them in our hands, newspapers because we want to sit and read them in a particular way, not because it’s the only option we have.)

Analog is an economic engine; the manufacture of physical objects is work, and artisanal manufacture of unique physical objects is expert work. “When Twitter put one person in an office downtown,” says Detroit city planner Kyle Polk, “it made the same headlines as [watchmaker] Shinola opening its factory.” We will never return to the manufacturing heyday of the first half of the twentieth century, but skilled manufacturing of non-self-obscolescing products has a necessary and neglected place in the economy, and the market is discovering and correcting for this. And as the power of digital marketing moves these products into popular awareness, the bar of expectation for availability of quality products raises, and pressure is put on large-scale manufacturing to work harder at approximating something closer to handcraft.

This is a very traditional-market-driven book, because Sax is a business journalist, but the ideas he explores are applicable and important in other areas too; I’d have loved to see more examination of indie and sharing economy services (I’m astonished that he didn’t talk about the sharing economy, at all, given how one-on-one human-contact-driven it is, but other authors are tackling that topic) or the trend of increased support for robust municipal government, government/nonprofit partnerships and participatory communities. These factors all interact and inform each other.

These four authors each express a different aspect of the same idea: that every individual human achievement catalyzes the totality of human experience that we each then have access to and work from, that individual and communal experience shape and inform each other and are inseparable, and as the pendulum swings away from the fetishization of radical individualism that defined the Reformation and the industrial age, we’re re-learning how to value and leverage shared imagination and intention, collective knowledge and effort to unlock ever-greater individual potential.





Published in intersections


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