When we talk about the future of newspapers, the future of education, the future of media, and the future of learning we tend to ignore the most important aspect. We tend to focus on information delivery and not on the nature of information seeking. We think, somehow, that we still need to get the same kind of information to people, but just in a different way. But the bigger shift is how the Internet has changed what kind of information we're looking for and how we go about finding it.
A British Library report on the future of libraries [PDF] hits the nail on the head:
Library users demand 24/7 access, instant gratification at a click, and are increasingly looking for "the answer" rather than for a particular format: a research monograph or a journal article for instance. So they scan, flick and "power browse" their way through digital content, developing new forms of online reading on the way that we do not yet fully understand (or, in many cases, even recognise.)
A page later, the report says:
In general terms, this new form of information seeking behaviour can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile and it is clear that these behaviours represent a serious challenges for traditional information providers, nurtured in a hardcopy paradigm and, in many respects, still tied to it.
John Naughton at The Observer helps put this in context:
What Marshall McLuhan called 'the Gutenberg galaxy' - that universe of linear exposition, quiet contemplation, disciplined reading and study - is imploding, and we don't know if what will replace it will be better or worse.
This is true, of course, not just of libraries and academia. It's true of newspapers and pretty much any medium that delivers information. The Internet has forced us, encouraged us, to develop scanning techniques way beyond the simple quick-reading skills of old. Now if I'm looking for information on the Gutenberg Galaxy I can do so quickly on Wikipedia simply by selecting the words on the page, right-clicking and selecting Search Google for... in the pop-up menu. Time taken: 2 seconds. (Indeed, Naughton and The Guardian/Observer could be considered somewhat backward by not providing the link in the piece itself.)
This ability to secure, and appetite for, quick access to snippets information (what I guess we used to call "gobbets") is part and parcel of the web and of the lives of those who spend any time on it. Why hunt for a dictionary if you can look it up on your cellphone/laptop/fridge display? The impact is still not properly understood or studied, however. If we satisfy our curiosity so easily, does our curiosity grow in all directions, both in breadth and depth, or does it flit from flower to flower like a bumble-bee in summer?
The British Library research seems to suggest the latter. Using words like horizontal, bouncing, checking, viewing, promiscuous, diverse and volatile seems to suggest we're entering a world where people are fickle and their attention spans short. Once the initial curiosity is satisfied ("What the hell is a gobbet?") the reader moves on, following the Serendipidity of the Hyperlink.
On the other hand, the word seems to suggest the readers have built-in safeguards against misinformation and inaccuracy. Our scanning skills are honed beyond merely being able to take in a page of information quickly. We -- or most of us; Facebook seems to presenting a challenge, if all the gullible messages my friends send me are representative -- are able to judge the source of information too, based on the layout, design and style of a web page and its contents.
This latter skill may be more important in the long run. Perhaps the shift is more about our understanding of what we need to know, and the time we can dedicate to knowing it, than to any shift in our attention span or ability to absorb deep columns of information.
The Gutenberg Galaxy, in fact, was bound to come to an end sometime. We simply have too much information to digest nowadays to be able, most of us, to take a leisurely stroll through the literature. And, frankly, in academic terms, much of the literature could be better and more tightly written. (I admit, I scanned the BT report and was mildly irritated it was a) in PDF format which slows digestion, b) didn't conform to usual layouts and c) lacked an executive summary and conclusion).
If there wasn't much information out there, and not much access to it, I would probably be quite happy dedicating my time to knowing a lot about Chaucer or the sex life of the fruitfly, and not much else. But the Internet has taught us a valuable lesson that we, as a race, seem to have forgotten: That there is so much stuff to learn out there we should be in a mad race to learn as much as we can about it as we can before we're run over by a Sat Nav-dependent truck.
Perhaps our generation will be the last to be stupid enough to think we know enough as individuals to be smart (or conversely, happy to wallow in our specialist expertise and general ignorance). Future generations may look back at us and ask why we were so incurious about all the things in front of us we didn't know anything about. Right now, I'd settle for knowing why the sky is blue, how many Grand Slam tournaments there are, what a grommet is and why there seem to be so many different types of plug to go on the end of a coaxial cable.
Thank God we're at last beginning to learn the skills necessary to find that stuff out before breakfast.