Networks are Expanding Our Ignorance

My father, prior to retirement, was a research scientist, professor, academic – he exemplified what most people think of when they use the term ‘an expert in his field’.  My dad was very wary of the term expert. When I was quite young he taught me to be sceptical of people who claimed that they were experts. “True experts never proclaim themselves as such” he would say, “The sign of a genuine expert is someone who knows enough about their field to have some inkling of how little they really understand it.”

I see a parallel between my dad’s view of experts and the concept of networks – the Internet in particular. It is a similarity that can sometime leave me feeling a little bit breathless. (Tanya Lau, a member of my PLN, captured the feeling perfectly in her blog when she described it as, “I’m following lots of interesting links and leads, it’s riveting, like obsessively reading a good novel and wanting to keep going without stopping to find out how it ends”).

The more time I spend on the Internet the more aware I am of how ignorant I am. My sense of what I don’t know is expanding daily! Networks provide ways of accessing information and knowing but simultaneously the Internet is so full of fascinating information that I am continually stumbling upon and dreaming up new questions. Google is an excellent answer generator but the more I connect with my PLN and read their thoughts and questions, the more questions I have.

Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick (what a great job title – I think I now have a new ambition – to be a Senior Maverick) at Wired magazine has noticed this phenomena as well.  His pithy capture of the concept is ~

Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.

I think the way I am experiencing the Internet is in fact characteristic of the Internet. It is indicative of how the Internet is causing an epistemological shift. We are moving more and more towards discovering HOW we know what we know through asking questions and consciously expanding our awareness of our own ignorance. Generally we are responding in one of two ways; either we become overwhelmed or we recognize the necessity for collaboration – of capitalizing on the positive aspects of networks (and I would say that often both a sense of being overwhelmed and an urgency for collaboration are at play – like waves of convergent and divergent thinking).

Howard Rheingold introduced me to the thinking of Robert Logan who maintains that the Internet constitutes the 6th human meta-language in man’s evolution of communication. Logan’s theory states that the first 5 languages in oder of appearance are:

  1. spoken language
  2. written communication
  3. mathematics
  4. scientific method
  5. computer/word processors

Logan contends that the 6th language, the Internet has five characteristic features that distinguish it from the other languages.

  • two-way communication [I claim that multi-way communication is more accurate]
  • ease of access of information
  • continuous learning
  • alignment and integration
  • community

The multi-directional nature of accessing information via the Internet leads to the corollary that accessing Internet information is very different from accessing print information. The language of the Internet is not bound by linear sequencing, either when it is being composed or when it is being consumed. Hyperlinks disrupt top to bottom, left to right, first this then that orientation.  The implication and ramifications of all this are challenging, still unfolding, paradigm shifting and will have a major impact on education, business and pretty much all aspects of society.

Considering the Internet as a way of thinking, as a meta-language has really broadened and clarified a great deal of my thinking about networks and communication.

I will be expanding and writing more about the language of the Internet in future posts.

About Maureen Crawford

I work as a researcher and educational consultant. My undergraduate degree is in industrial design so design thinking has long been part of my process - emergent connectivist learning resonates strongly with me.
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21 Responses to Networks are Expanding Our Ignorance

  1. jaapsoft2 says:

    great post, the internet as a language. I need to think about that.

  2. Hi Maureen,

    When you say: “The Internet is causing an epistemological shift. We are moving more and more towards discovering HOW we know what we know through asking questions and consciously expanding our awareness of our own ignorance.”

    Have you experienced this yourself? Do you know a lot of people who have experienced it? What are the conditions precedent for experiencing it?

    • Charles,
      You pose really excellent questions. I so appreciate you nudging me to try and clarify. What follows is some more of my, ‘thinking out loud’.
      My initial reaction to your first question was a resounding yes. Here is my first blush response –

      On a personal level I am becoming more and more aware of the range of thought and the many processes that I was unaware of previously, this engenders many questions on my part. The questions are driving my learning. Previously I my learning happened because I went to a particular silo (i.e. had a subject that I wanted to know more about and sought out either a course or published material) to provide me with the information.

      – After writing this I felt the need to also include the fact that a good deal of my learning was informal. It was based on experience and serendipity. Which brought me up short – how does that differ epistemologically from what it is I think I am doing when I am using the Internet?

      – more pondering and I started shifting back to thinking that the Internet provides a completely different way of knowing based on sequencing. This response itself is an example of my willingness to combine my thinking and writing over time, and thus shift the way I am developing my thinking. I write, contemplate, cut, paste, shift, reassess and reconsider – all mixed as I progress. In the pre-Internet, pre-computer/word processing world that I came of age in and did my first degree in, I would have spent a great deal more time mapping out my thoughts internally before committing to writing a response. My brain would have been the container and filter system for much longer and I believe that would have influenced (for better or worse) my final product. I would have thought differently, I would have known ‘how I know what I know’ differently.

      I also find myself developing little habits that I take as indications that I have different thought expectations now than I would ever have had before. An example of this happened this morning. I have quite a large personal library which had to be packed up on short notice. The books are now back on the shelves, but I was not the one who put them back and therefore they are not back in order, not back where they belong (another chore I have to get to). This morning I wanted one of the books to use as a reference. I knew I owned the book, I knew the title of the book, I knew the look of the book, but I couldn’t spot it. I found my self being slightly irritated at having to manually search for it. My brain seemed to think that it would be very reasonable if I could just press ‘command f’ type in the title and have the book slide forward on the shelf so that I could nab it.

      Your second question was, Do you know a lot of people who have experienced it? I work in a large school system. My impression is that there are a lot more questions being asked as a way of moving our work forward. It seems that there is a greater willingness to share 1/2 baked ideas and to genuinely collaborate so our thinking is more ‘our’ thinking (rather than each person putting forward their best thinking and we then choose which person’s best thinking we use). There is still a great deal of thinking along traditional lines but I think a shift is underway. It is not a shift that is a result of the adoption of some new reform process but rather it is a revolutionary shift in the way people work and think and so there is no going back. (i.e. no duck and maybe this new idea will pass).

      You ask – What are the conditions precedent for experiencing it? I think asking lots of questions is one condition. Another condition is understanding at a fundamental level that there is no possible way of being conclusively comprehensive or predicting sequence accurately. If I hand you a book we both understand the ideal place for you to begin. We also know what the author considered to be the ideal sequence for you to consume the information. You can read it cover-to-cover. You can completely/comprehensively read it. You can complete a checklist and you can feel that you ‘know’ it. If you were tested on it you would expect to be able to find all the answers in the book. (I do recognize and concede that this is not absolute – i.e. interpretation and what you bring to the equation). There are very distinct, concrete boundaries on the book. With the internet boundaries are far more permeable. You can link out (or in) it is not static, it flows and it is impossible to contain the entire flow – it is knowledge in motion.

      I think that the knowledge in motion, too big to know, uncontainable flow is what causes people to be overwhelmed. Many of us were trained in systems where the ideal was comprehensive knowledge of the system or topic being studied. This was never really possible (ergo my dad’s perspective) but it was held as an ideal. My view of the language of the Internet (of being able to use the Internet as a way of communicating, of learning, of sharing what I know, of being able to navigate both the semantics and the syntax of the Internet) includes my coming to an understanding that my goal is to shift how I know what I know. I need to not expect or demand comprehensive knowledge – to be willing to share 1/2 baked ideas so that others can chime in, to release intellectual control into the connecting pieces, to see informed contribution and presence as the goal rather than feeling that the goal should be to enrich and improve my own node (although I think that the enrichment and improvement of my own node ends up being a positive byproduct – but it is not the goal).

    • Charles, in response to your questions here is another post, entitled Tools for Collaborative Learning which can be found on Keep Learning, documenting the concept that the way we think is changing and supporting my view that collaboration is one of the key conditions precedent for experiencing the shift. Even the title of the blog, Keep Learning, reflects Logan’s criteria that the Internet is characterized by continuous learning. In fact, I think all five of Logan’s Internet characteristics are in evidence in the post.

  3. jennymackness says:

    Hi Maureen – I can relate to this post. I wrote a similar one a while back about being in a permanent state of conscious incompetence. Do you think networks really are expanding our ignorance or is it more that we were always ignorant, it just wasn’t ‘in our face’ so much, we weren’t so aware of it 🙂

    • tanyalau says:

      …maybe then it’s more that networks ‘expose’ rather than ‘expand’ our ignorance?! Although as I’m thinking about this, perhaps the concept of expanding ignorance is somewhat more fitting – as it implies our ignorance ‘grows’ as our networks expand…which might be the case – or at least our perception

      • The interesting thing is to think about this in the context of my dad’s definition of an expert . . . maybe in an ironic twist we are all expanding our expertise by becoming more consciously aware of the scope of what we don’t know!

  4. I think awareness of what we don’t know is more the point than an absolute increase in our ignorance. However, I really do think that the fundamental way in which we perceive the world and our understanding is shifting due to the greater consciousness brought about in large part by networks. See my response to Charles – above

  5. Hi Maureen,

    I can definitely identify with this post. Networks teach us things every day and yet every day we find out how little we know. It’s a unique paradox that keeps us locked in for the need to discover and learn more. It’s almost an information/stimulation overload and learning to navigate and keep control of ourselves in the language of the Internet is a challenge. After three years of social networking, I’m starting to get a hold around my time spent on the Internet, and then something takes down down an unexpected rabbit hole and later you realize how long you’ve been chasing the rabbit only to feel slightly unsatisfied at the end, maybe because we realize that after all that, we are still ignorant.

    • I agree with you Nicole.
      I descend down that rabbit hole (sometimes very willingly – for fun, and sometimes in procrastination mode to avoid other tasks, and sometimes unwittingly through lack of awareness) with some frequency BUT the more I consciously reflect on my Internet interactions, the more experienced I become and the more I study the whole area of ‘communication technology’ and ‘knowledge management’ the more fluent I become in effectively using the language of the Internet.

      • Buzzilinear says:

        But it’s us as humans searching for that information first. Something has driven us to look for that information or ask the question. The network itself doesn’t lead to more questions but our desire to now know or to not not know seems to be much different than before when so-called “experts” had the high amount of retention and recital ability.

        Now the focus seems to be more on those who can analyze and consult/perform rather than simply regurgitate. We may be more ignorant but are we more aware now of what we don’t know and how much we could know?

  6. tanyalau says:

    wow, I came back here to write a comment and found lots more than when I was last here! I think my brain is exploding trying to take it all in…!
    Anyway, what I was going to comment on was actually the exact point that Charles picked out and you expanded hugely on….the point about more discovery on the internet leading to more questions. I remember Jeff Merrell saying something along these lines when we did #xplrpln and discovering this to be the case for me often when I sat down to write a post trying to consolidate my thoughts (but realising more questions emerging). And I have certainly found it to be the case with the rhizo course – and seemingly more so because there seems to be an unlimited, exponentially increasing world to discover (whereas at least xplrpln had a list of ‘set’ readings – and I couldn’t even get through those!).
    The point I was going to make though was that strangely, I think even the generation of questions does help you to focus your inquiry – it forces you to narrow the scope of your inquiry – the questions you generate are those threads you pick out that interest you most for some reason or other: it’s this thing of divergent and convergent thinking coming into play…I wonder if, rather than ever ‘knowing’ the ‘answer’ we just move through a process of continually narrowing or shifting our field of inquiry by asking more focused and/or shifting questions with each discovery….like a process of continually hypothesising > seeking > ‘discovering’ > further hypothesising > seeking etc…..

  7. francesbell says:

    Great discussion here. I don’t want to stop the flow but just to note what struck me when I read the original post (and I think it’s relevant to comments too).
    “Logan’s theory states that the first 5 languages in oder of appearance are:

    spoken language
    written communication
    scientific method
    computer/word processors
    Logan contends that the 6th language, the Internet has five characteristic features that distinguish it from the other languages.”

    I can’t really comment on Logan’s contention but I do react strongly to anything that smacks of eras. Languages may have appeared in that order but they don’t go away. Thinking about them rhizomatically would sensitise us to hierarchies but encourage us to look at how they are connected

  8. helinur says:

    I love this 140 mark sentence I met in Twitter :
    Social media doesn’t cause ignorance. However, it is very effective at documenting it.
    – I had to tell this inspired of your heading 🙂

  9. It took me forever to write my post on Week 4 because of all the rabbit holes I descended. As I go back to make sure I have curated what I missed for the #Rhizo14 Pinterest Board, I found this post. Logan’s work is exactly what I was trying to describe and I am so glad I found your post as it resonates with my findings.

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