Blame It On Gutenberg!

gutenberg1

If you live long enough, you find yourself out of the loop.  You lose touch with your own society.  You don’t understand the language anymore, fashions look scandalous, music is noise, young people are stupid and technology is a battle, not a convenience.  This is why, for the most part, old people are grumpy.  They simply don’t understand the world they live in.  This is the natural order of things, and we all do it.  It’s been going on since Zeus replaced Horus as the god of choice along the Nile.  In essence, we remain brand loyal to the years that made sense to us and we never leave them, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing.  So we fondly remember the 60s or the 20s (or whenever we thought we were cool) and naturally wonder, loud and long what the hell happened to that time.

However, in recent history, this generational disconnection has become more than just a side effect of the trudge to the grave; it’s now happening to young people.  Thirty-somethings are looking back at the 80s like it was a Golden Age.  Forty-somethings are wrapping themselves in fashions clearly unsuitable for a widening waistline, and if you’re creeping up on fifty — forget it – you just might as well have been born during Prohibition.  The problem is we live in an age when the layers of knowledge are getting thinner and thinner, and if you miss one, you can never catch up.  Here’s how it works.

For the thousand years or so between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, nothing much changed in our world.  Certainly, there were scientific and social advances during that time, but progress was slow.  To your average peasant, one century looked pretty much like the last one: a bit more plague, a little less heretic burning, but no decided differences.  People were born, lived and died in a world dominated by the church, impending famine and war.  Generations of people worked the land, built cathedrals and occasionally bashed each other over the head — for a millennium — with the tools and weapons their ancestors used.  Innovation, when it came, travelled slowly and new ideas were not readily accepted.  The layers of knowledge were thick.

This all changed when a German named Gutenberg built a printing press sometime around 1436.  Suddenly, ideas didn’t have to travel by word of mouth anymore (getting totally screwed up along the way.)  They could be written down and printed in large numbers.  So, if Wolfgang, a Bavarian smart guy, figured out a better way to grind wheat that knowledge was both easily assessable and, more importantly, widely distributed (with no embellishments.)  With this rapid exchange of information, the layers of knowledge got remarkably thinner.  By the time Pope Urban VIII was threatening to cut off Galileo’s protruding parts for saying the Earth revolved around the sun — not the other way around — in 1633, there was no stopping it.  Galileo may have recanted his discoveries to save his appendages, but his book remained out there for anybody to read.

Thus it was that invention no longer had to rely on the genius of one person to initiate change, nor the local gossipmonger to spread the word about it.  Books changed all that; ideas became permanently available.  Philosophers and scientists could build on each others’ knowledge just by reading each others’ books.  And each innovation was also written about, in turn, thus spawning dozens of refinements that continued the cycle.  The world of ideas expanded exponentially.  The layers of knowledge became thinner and thinner.

Skip forward two centuries and these days the layers of knowledge are so thin they don’t last more than a couple of years.  Some are added to our world and expanded upon before people are even acquainted with them.  For example, for 99% of history, people looked at a map if they wanted to know where they were going.  In the late 1990s, the GPS system revolutionized that.  However, before anybody could really cash in on a stand-alone GPS device, it became an accessory (App?) on our Smart phones.  The same thing is now happening with digital cameras and MP3 players.  These devices were born, lived and died in less time than it takes an average person to get a PhD in Sociology.

There is no longer a generation gap in our society.  There is only an information gap.  As the world spins ever faster all around us, we long for the security blanket of the objects we’re familiar with – whether they’re electronic devices or social interaction.  Nobody fully understands the world we live in (not that anybody ever did) but in the 21st century, more and more of us are falling further and further behind.  People are uploading and downloading information at such a furious rate no one can really process it properly.  (For example, that last sentence wouldn’t have made sense a generation ago.)   The result is we look with nostalgia on what we remember as a simpler time.  So the next time you see some kid with droopy drawers, talking to what is clearly a teenage prostitute, in a language akin to gibberish, while techno-noise booms in the background — blame it on Gutenberg: he started it all.

I originally wrote this is 2012 – ironically not much has changed since then.

If You Don’t Understand Our World, Blame Gutenberg!

If you live long enough, you find yourself out of the loop.  You lose touch with your own society.  You don’t understand the language anymore, fashions look scandalous, music is noise, young people are stupid and technology is a battle, not a convenience.  This is why, for the most part, old people are grumpy.  They simply don’t understand the world they live in.  This is the natural order of things, and we all do it.  It’s been going on since Zeus replaced Horus as the god of choice along the Nile.  In essence, we remain brand loyal to the years that made sense to us and we never leave them, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing.  So we fondly remember the 60s or the 20s (or whenever we thought we were cool) and naturally wonder, loud and long what the hell happened to that time.

However, in recent history, this generational disconnection has become more than just a side effect of the trudge to the grave; it’s now happening to young people.  Thirty-year-olds are looking back at the 80s like it was a Golden Age.  Forty-year-olds are wrapping themselves in fashions clearly unsuitable for a widening waistline, and if you’re creeping up on fifty — forget it – you just might as well have been born during Prohibition.  The problem is we live in an age when the layers of knowledge are getting thinner and thinner, and if you miss one, you can never catch up.  Here’s how it works.

For the thousand years or so between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, nothing much changed in our world.  Certainly, there were scientific and social advances during that time, but progress was slow.  To your average peasant, one century looked pretty much like the last one: a bit more plague, a little less heretic burning, but no decided differences.  People were born, lived and died in a world dominated by the church, impending famine and war.  Generations of people worked the land, built cathedrals and occasionally bashed each other over the head — for a millennium — with the tools and weapons their ancestors used.  Innovation, when it came, travelled slowly and new ideas were not readily accepted.  The layers of knowledge were thick.

This all changed when a German named Gutenberg built a printing press sometime around 1436.  Suddenly, ideas didn’t have to travel by word of mouth anymore (getting totally screwed up along the way.)  They could be written down and printed in large numbers.  So, if Wolfgang, a Bavarian smart guy, figured out a better way to grind wheat that knowledge was both easily assessable and, more importantly, widely distributed (with no embellishments.)  With this rapid exchange of information, the
layers of knowledge got remarkably thinner.  By the time Pope Urban VIII was threatening to cut off Galileo’s protruding parts for saying the Earth revolved around the sun — not the other way around — in 1633, there was no stopping it.  Galileo may have recanted his discoveries to save his appendages, but his book remained out there for anybody to read.

Thus it was that invention no longer had to rely on the genius of one person to initiate change, nor the local gossipmonger to spread the word about it.  Books changed all that; ideas became permanently available.  Philosophers and scientists could build on each others’ knowledge just by reading each others’ books.  And each innovation was also written about, in turn, thus spawning dozens of refinements that continued the cycle.  The world of ideas expanded exponentially.  The layers of our society’s knowledge became thinner and thinner.

Skip forward two centuries and these days the layers of knowledge are so thin they don’t last more than a couple of years.  Some are added to our world and expanded upon before people are even acquainted with them.  For example, for 99% of history, people looked at a map if they wanted to know where they were going.  In the late 1990s, the GPS system revolutionized that.  However, before anybody could really cash in on a stand-alone GPS device, it became an accessory (App?) on our Smart phones.  The same thing is now happening with digital cameras and MP3 players.  These devices were born, lived and died in less time than it takes an average person to get a PhD in Sociology.

There is no longer a generation gap in our society.  There is only an information gap.  As the world spins ever faster all around us, we long for the security blanket of the objects we’re familiar with – whether they’re electronic devices or social interaction.  Nobody fully understands the world we live in (not that anybody ever did) but in the 21st century, more and more of us are falling further and further behind.  People are downloading information at such a furious rate they can no longer process it properly.  (For example, that last sentence wouldn’t have made sense a couple of generations ago.)   The result is we look with nostalgia on what we remember as a simpler time.  So the next time you see some kid with droopy drawers, talking to what is clearly a teenage prostitute, in a language akin to gibberish, blame it on Gutenberg: he started it all.

Information Overload

One of the serious side effects of living in the 21st century is the incredible amount of intrusive information that comes our way every day.  I’m not just talking about crap either but high grade ore suitable for framing.  I found out Berlusconi was going down for the count while I was standing in line at McDonald’s, probably before some of his own party members knew it.  Most people will tell you this is a good thing: that information is power (and all that other claptrap.)  This is not true.  Giving too much information to people who don’t want it, need it, or understand it is a dangerous thing.  Information is like any other commodity: when supply overwhelms demand its value decreases.

Let me give you an absurd example.  The Louvre has one of the greatest collections of art in the world.  There’s enough paint on canvas there to wallpaper an entire condo development — with lots left over.  However, talk to any ordinary person (read “non art student”) who’s been there, and after they mention the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and a few others, they invariably run out of things to say.  That’s not because all the other works are second rate.  There’s one huge room filled with wall-to-wall Rubens, for example (which, by the way, was actually commissioned as wallpaper by one of the Medici girls.)  No, it’s because there’s simply too much to see.  At the end of two hours (three hours, max!) the average person just can’t take any more.  The senses shut down, fold up their tents and wander off.  The bratty kid, ying-yanging on the guardrail, gets equal attention to the Titian hanging on the wall behind her.  People just can’t process that much stuff in that length of time.  It’s difficult enough to appreciate the intricacies of a single masterpiece in isolation; it’s impossible to do it when you’ve upped the ante by a thousand.

Information works the same way.  Here’s another absurd example.  There have probably been more words written about the Kardashians this week than anybody else on the planet.  The mega-hours of reporting Kim’s wooing, wedding, build-up and breakup when laid end to end (pardon the old pun) would likely last longer that the marriage itself.  Yet, despite tons of information, even the harshest Kardashifan has no idea what’s going on.  The whole sordid spectacle could be anything from a brilliantly executed publicity stunt to the tragicest love story in the history of Reality TV.  Mere information is helpless if you’re looking into the heart of a Kardashian.

Out of sheer self defence many people make a couple of big mistakes when dealing with the volumes of information coming at them.  First of all, they confuse information with knowledge.  While knowledge is especially useful in a world that’s travelling faster than a speeding Tweet, information on its own is the closest thing you can get to useless without actually going there.  In fact, it’s actually detrimental.  Just because you know something, doesn’t mean you understand it – and that can cause problems.  For example, back when I cared about such things, I knew a bunch of stuff about cars.  I could open the hood and tell you where things were and what they did.  However, even then, as I found out a couple of times, give me a wrench and you better call a tow truck.  I had information but no understanding, and without understanding, I couldn’t postulate far enough to solve even minor problems.  In order to make a reasonable assessment of anything, you have to understand it, not just recognize it exists.

The second big mistake people make about information is assuming it’s an end unto itself.  It isn’t.  Information is the raw material that we build things out of, it is not the final product.  Even though I know the attributes of a right angle triangle, that doesn’t make me Pythagoras.   I might think I am, but unless I have a practical application for a2 + b2 = c2, it could be written in Greek for all the good it does me.  Most of the tons of information we receive is like that: we hardly ever apply it.  It lies dormant; its usefulness wasted by benign neglect.  Essentially, it’s like sitting on the sofa getting all the answers (Questions?) correct on Jeopardy: if we aren’t contestants we’re never going to win any money.  It’s not the information we have that counts; it’s what we do with it.

Here in the 21st century, we believe there is intrinsic value in the possession of information.   We think a well-informed population will naturally make well-informed decisions.  While this is basically true, the problem comes from the minor annoyance that the general population is not well-informed, at all.  They merely have access to information; they’re two different things.  Without understanding and application, the information we do have is useless.  In fact, the tsunami of data that assaults us every day is actually a hindrance to informed decision-making.  Not only do we think we already have the information we need, but in many cases our brains have already shut down from information overload.  Therefore, we have to rely on those comfortable sound bytes and buzzwords we already know to guide us.  The problem is that just isn’t real information: is it?