Focusing on the Climb
Separating the Why from the How

We Become What We Behold

Chaos Order Lunch

The words of media prophet Marshall McLuhan: "We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us."

Well, our newfangled tools are becoming... thoughty. Or perhaps a better word: impressionistic.


The intellectual currency of plane travel consists of articles of intermediate length. On my trip to Japan, my wife and I had packed The Brothers Karamazoff, The Jew in the Lotus, and a few other slender volumes of poetry. Yet upon arriving at the international terminal of Seattle-Tacoma Airport, we found ourselves inexorably drawn to the kiosk-sized Borders to pilfer a stack of magazines: The Atlantic fiction Issue, a copy of Uncut about the history of Pink Floyd, a crossword-only edition of Games. Even while I was writing this sentence in my journal, my wife dropped into my lap a copy of Fast Company. (Try doing that with a Nook, and imagine the virtual thump it would require.)

As consumers of information, we've ceased to differentiate between content from a mainstream media source and the words of Everyday Joe down the street commenting on the quality of various coffees. The only difference between the two is that one writer receives a salary to produce well-formed prose within a certain set period of time (a deadline), while the other can come from anyone with an Internet connection, a point of view, and dedicated time.

Throw into the mix tools that let you broadcast not only longer-form pieces of prose, audio, and video, and a delicate tapestry emerges around everyday topics of interest, a swirl of bits surrounding our hunting and pecking for more cogently formed data, which we most often find pre-processed and embedded in arguments that wrestle with higher-order problems.

The overload from so many blog posts woven into the fabric of corporate-produced content has become a pure reflection of what percolates through our mass consciousness on a minute-by-minute basis. As this trend accelerates, we will see a growing divide between simply expressed ideas and complex ideas, and how they are consumed and iterated by individuals out in the wild.

Consider the way we constantly switch between different modes of consuming content (i.e. stories). Our pattern recognition skills are being leveraged to make connections more quickly between disparate kinds of content. This is cognitively demanding in a different kind of way than reading Moby Dick.

A long telephone chat with a good friend who's moving to Pennsylvania. A postcard from your co-worker, who's trekking his way through the Swiss Alps. A box of wedding portraits shared by your Aunt Ethel. By comparison, newer web technologies seem more like knives than sewing needles. The clippings lie flat on the virtual table in neat piles and stacks, and we expend the energy necessary to make the mental scrapbook of our day. This "processing time" to sew information together bleeds over into World 1.0, when we are eating, sleeping, and taking care of our dirty business. The shape of the story isn't so readily apparent. We fumble our way towards it, and can only articulate those emergent stories through the artifacts we've gathered together. It defies words. Our language is our curse, and we find ourselves shackled to the dictionary whenever we wish to summarize these new kinds of ideas. We weren't designed to speak in pictures.

Now, I'm not suggesting that our newfound tools are reducing our intelligence. They're just making it harder for us to sustain an argument with ourselves about how we live our lives in the physical world. As my colleague Eleanor Davies said, "The sheer amount of Online presence and updates contradicts the very content we spend our Online time creating—confirmations via the virtual world that we are busy living in the real."

I'm also not posing that activities like reading books and watching movies and any other type of long-form media can help us to live more firmly in the real world (if they're poorly formed)—but they can allow us to think in stories that map to the length of our lives.

Besides... the individual words in every story always vanish, as we struggle to remember the plot.




The quote you included from Eleanor Davies is very well put. I'm getting the sense that one of the early 2010 trends is going to be scaling back on the information we consume and share, or in other words, a scaling back of engagement. I've already heard this from a handful of clients--that they are just too burnt out on social media, and that they are frankly not seeing any benefit to their engagement anyway. I can't say I fully share their feelings on this, but I do sense that they're not alone.

In any case, Eleanor's point is succinct and elegantly stated. My guess is that someone with her insight and articulation is well situated in the real world.

Interesting post, as usual.


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