(England, July 2, 1508) – In the latest edition of the Ye Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas of Carr despairs over the toll that books and reading are taking upon the minds and spirit of man. A noted jongleur and philosopher, Nicholas attests that he and many members of the jongleur guild are losing their ability to sing epic poems from memory. He plainly believes books are the cause. “It is as if these instruments are agents of Lucifer trying to steal away God’s gift of memory”, he laments in the article. And the danger may be more than the loss of the jongleur gift. While it seems ludicrous, Nicholas foresees a future in which even peasants have learned to read books. People from every class would lose the ability to remember even the simplest parable or psalm as they rely on the insidious books to remember it for them. While admitting that relying on books would provide him more epics and ideas to share with his audience, Nicholas worries that doing so will weaken his mind and spirit. “To rely on the crutch of a book when I sing a poem cheats my audience and demoralizes me,” declares Nicholas of Carr.
OK, unless you are an Atlantic Monthly reader, you are probably thinking that this is a very strange way to start a post. If you would like to better understand my lame attempt at parody, please read this:
Is Google Making us Stupid?
Nicholas Carr’s love/hate relationship with technology have given us very interesting food for thought such as Does IT Matter?, The Amorality of Web 2.0, and his recent, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google. All his works are thought provoking and often challenge ideological extremism and divisiveness that tends to echo rampantly in the blogosphere.
I will leave the critical diatribe to others (see Jay Cross’s petulance). This is a blog on learning and performance improvement. So, in that regard, let me share the ideas that struck me as I read the article:
Acquired ADD – Carr laments how he and colleagues can’t read lengthy articles any longer. They have been conditioned by the Web (so he contends) to do drive-by reading (my term d’art), only gathering the information they need and then moving on. Yea, so? Let’s face it, we are moving into an attention economy. My time is valuable, I need to get what I need to perform and move on quickly if I want to remain competitive. And when I do compete well enough to win some leisure time, I will still “scuba dive in the sea of words” (Carr’s reference to deeply reading a whole book). But that book better be engaging (which is rare in non-fiction) or I’ll quickly find another book that is. Does this mean we are worse readers, or just demanding better quality reading?
It’s the Economy Stupid – Like it or not, we all have to compete in this dynamic economy. That means using the best tools available to innovate, solve problems, and out produce your competitors. Carr shares that pathologist Bruce Friedman’s feels his thinking has taken on a “staccato” quality – “scanning short passages of text from many sources online.” So? If the only downside is you can’t plod through War and Peace any longer and the upside is you perform more efficiently, I’m OK with that.
The Brain : Mind Barrier – Carr’s most dark and insidious concern throughout the article is that we are flirting with a future where machines have surpassed the human brain. He even claims that the Google gang stated that “we’d be better off” if are brains were replaced by an artificial intelligence (I’m guessing they stated “supplemented” instead of “replaced”). Indeed, Carr closes with his fears of a 2001: A Space Odyssey world where “people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine.” Well, that makes for a nice, spooky movie, but it is fiction. To make that leap, we would have to agree that the brain and the mind are one. We would have to have concluded that self-awareness, reasoning, cognizance, and intelligence are all just a by-product of an efficiently wired brain. I don’t believe that conclusion is already settled and universal. The Web may become an ancillary brain for us, but it can never replace the human mind.
Maslow on Google – If we drop the economic argument (after all the market may not always know what is best for us) of performance improvement, how does Carr’s claim impact us as individuals? Will our collective inability to finish lengthy tomes upset our personal success? If it does turn out that a “staccato intellect” results in me better meeting my needs, it is well worth it. To contemplate this, let’s revisit Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as influenced by the Web:
- Physiological Needs (Breathing, Drinking, Eating, Excretion) – Other than the fact that the eventual demise of newspapers and magazines will alter my excretion behaviors, I do not believe the Web impacts us at this level.
- Safety Needs (Personal Security, Financial Security, Health and Well-Being) – Even if the Web has given me ADD, it has provided me with a host of tools and information to find a better home, clothing, invest more wisely, and learn how to take better care of my health.
- Social Needs (Friendship, Family, Sex) – Others could argue finer points, but overall I would say the Web has proven to be a wonderful platform to help meet these needs. It helps us find and stay in touch with friends, find spouses and communicate with the families we create with them, and find opportunities to have sex (with others or alone ;).
- Esteem Needs (Self-Esteem, Confidence, Achievement, Respect for/of Others) – Now on this need, the Web’s influence becomes arguable. The Web, like any tool or communication platform, can be used for good and bad. Via the Web I can build great esteem, or have my esteem destroyed by others. I’m going to call this one a draw now, but as we grow into the new mores of radical transparency and attention trust, the good will soon outweigh the bad.
- Self-Actualization Needs (Morality, Creativity, Spontaneity, Problem Solving) – And finally, we reach the level most directly addressed by Carr’s concerns. This is our need to become the best we are capable of becoming. Learning, creating, reading, curiosity are all the traits that Carr worries the Web might be undermining. Again, I will argue that the good outweighs the bad. Through “drive-by learning” I can still gather more ideas that feed my morality, creativity, and problem solving abilities. Inevitably, I will still be forced to more deeply contemplate those ideas as I weave them into my world view. And often the Web (or people on the Web) will be what challenges me to contemplate them more deeply.
Learning 2.0 – And finally onto what this blog is supposed to be considering: How do people learn differently in this new, Web-driven era? Carr’s article included many examples of how new technologies (such as the mechanical clock) have literally changed the way we think and behave. Carr’s basic concern is the Web has ruined our ability to read deeply which (he references to the work of Maryanne Wolf) will ruin are ability to think deeply. (Which begs the question: Can illiterate people think deeply?) There is certainly no research to support that assertion, yet. But there is no doubt that the Web is changing the way we work and learn. So, the important question for us in learning is: How does our pedagogy have to change to support this new way of working and learning? Even if this new era of acquired ADD does not alter our brain function or our ability for higher-level thought, it is a death knell for lengthy (boring) learning – whether it be in a classroom or online. We need to move from structured learning programs to flexible, nimble chunks of instruction along the lines of what used to be called “electronic performance support systems” (and is now just called “Google”). This does not mean the extinction of complex learning programs, but those programs’ design and delivery need to radically change. They must rely on more self-directed, mentor-monitored learning that is tightly integrated with daily job performance to meet the learning and development objectives.
So ends my Nicholas Carr inspired prattle. If you made it this far, I congratulate you! Your Web-induced ADD is not as advanced as Bruce Friedman’s, who is quoted in Carr’s article:
“I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Here is a simple illustration I put together for a client that displays the six primary monetization methods on the Web. Is is a simplification and expansion on a post from Dion Hinchcliffe from awhile back. The only real “Web 2.0” advances in monetization lurk in the “back door” that was opened up using APIs. Recently, Larry Dignan reiterated a common refrain that APIs are the future of Web monetization based on very rough numbers of how much Amazon makes from its numerous Web Services (additional interesting point here). While the numbers are not yet firm they are the only new monetization method that has arisen with Web 2.0. The illustration shows the monetization methods from the traditional “front door” of a Website as well the new opportunities opened up by APIs (all presented simply enough for even the busiest executive):
And here is a very brief summary of the six methods:
Advertising: The Web site owner sells spots on the website (“inventory”) to advertisers. There are numerous models for this type of monetization. Some are fixed price, some are per displays (“impressions”), other are based on the visitor clicking or taking some other action from the add link. Example: AOL sells premium ad banner locations for up to $500K per day.
Subscriptions: The Web site owner only makes some or all of the content or functionality available to customers who create an account and use a credit card (or other means) to subscribe to use the content or services. Rhapsody.com charges users $10/month to be able to listen to millions of songs from thousand of artists anytime, anywhere (online – additional charge to download a song).
Retail: The Web site sells products or services directly to the site visitor. This is a single transaction as opposed to an ongoing subscription. Example: iTunes makes it money be selling individual songs for download.
Donations: The Web site allows people who find the site’s content or services useful to donate money to keep the service functional. Example: RadioParadise.com is a user-supported online radio station that generates all its revenue from listener donations.
Fees: This is a B2B charge where the Web site makes some or all of its content or services available to other businesses for a fixed fee. Example: Amazon.com opened many of its online merchant functionality to other companies and generated an additional $250M in revenue in 2005.
Commissions: This is a B2B charge where the Web site makes some or all of its content or services available to other businesses and collects a percentage of the other business’ resulting revenue. Example: Google AdSense allows everyone to put Google text ads on their website and get a percentage of the money Google makes from the advertising.
And that is a wrap of the original document. But…
Coming Soon: Web 2.0 Show Me The Money (Part 2) – wherein I revisit the illustration and update it based on recent developments and the great monetization summary article from Professor Michael Rappa. (I will try to get part two up in the next 30 days!). In the meantime, please leave comments especially if you can point out everything I missed!
International travel is always exciting and wonderfully educational. Last November I did a long bit of globetrotting to deliver Web 2.0 training events in Switzerland, Italy, Singapore, England, and France. Given the challenge of discussing Web 2.0 with colleagues who speak a wide variety of languages, the topic of the language of the Web often pops up. Usually at dinner (especially after the second bottle of Chianti), passionate predictions of Web 3.0, 4.0 and beyond are debated. As the predictions turn to the issue of language, some espouse that English will prevail given its current dominance and foothold in markup and programming languages. Others suggest that China’s size and economic growth will overwhelm all other languages and dominant the Web. And then there was one person predicting that Latin would be resurrected as the language of the Web – but he was also the person who drank the majority of the Chianti.
Now, my crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else’s. But since the past and the present often give insight into the future, I decided to learn a few things from the Web:
The first thing I found was this reference from World Internet Stats (I have no idea on how accurate their data is) that shows the “Top Internet Languages” as of November 2007:
While interesting (and perhaps relevant in a roundabout way) this speaks to the digital divide more than the language of the Web. This is the (primary) languages of the people using the Web, not the language of the Web pages themselves. And as we see, currently 30% of the Web’s users speak English according to World Internet Stats. What is interesting further down the page is the table that shows the growth rate of languages on the Web. From 2000 to 2007, the number of English Web users grew 167%. Chinese speaking users grew at 472% (and Arabic speaking users grew at an amazing 1,575% – unfortunately, no statistics were provided for Latin speakers ;o). If we see the same growth over the next seven years, by 2015 the number of English speaking and Chinese speaking Web users will be roughly equal at about 1 billion. But that still tells us only what language the speak – not what language they are reading on the Web. So, on we go…
Next I found the Future of the Internet II report from the always interesting Pew Internet & American Life Project. In the survey for the report, they asked 742 Internet leaders, activists, builders and commentators about the effect of the Internet on social, political and economic life in the year 2020. With regard to language of the Internet in 2020, the report summarizes the results this way:
“Many respondents said they accept the idea that English will be the world’s lingua franca for cross-cultural communications in the next few decades. But notable numbers maintained English will not overwhelm other languages and, indeed, Mandarin and other languages will expand their influence online. Most respondents stressed that linguistic diversity is good and that the internet will allow the preservation of languages and associated cultures. Others noted that all languages evolve over time and argued that the internet will abet that evolution.”
And there is much more valuable and interesting info in that report. I highly recommend it. But I’m a numbers guy. I want to find more stats on than actual language of the pages being posted on the Web. So – on we go…
So, I searched on and on (I gave up after an hour) and could not find any statistics of what percentage of the billions ow Web pages out there were in which language. It was frustrating to say the least. So, in the spirit of Web 2.0, I fell finally upon David Sifry’s report on the growth of RSS to try to guesstimate the language of publication on the Web. From his April 2007 State of the Live Web post, I pulled this:
So, based on RSS feeds (which is interpreted as blogs) and you can see that there are more RSS items in Japanese than in English. If you visit the page you will see that he also has statistics on new RSS items per hour by language. From this, he observes, “Again it would appear that both English and Spanish are more global languages based on consistency of posting through a 24 hour period, whereas other top languages, specifically Japanese, Chinese, and Italian, are more geographically correlated.” But again, this reflects only blogs (RSS feeds) and not the much larger Web as a whole.
So, I was not able to find any data from which I could fashion a crystal ball to predict the language of the Internet. If any of you have any stats that would be helpful, I would love to hear about them. But we do not have to predict what the future language of the Internet will be to move on to the point of this post. (Are you, like me, beginning to wonder if there is a point to this post?)
One last thought before I finally get to the point (Ha! – sorry, but it helps set the satge for the point). We should first pause to reflect on the great wisdom that has been already been imparted to humankind. I speak, of course of the great book chastises the great folly of man and provides keys to the future and how we must adapt to thrive. That book of wise parables and foresight, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. In that tome, the prophet Adams first introduced us to the Babelfish. The power of virtual Babelfish continues to grow and, one day, it may be the case that all languages are fully interchangeable. Until then, ideas will be more valuable in their native language – and more useful to native speakers.
So finally to my point. The Web has transformed the way we learn. To continually adapt to our dynamic environment, we must harvest ideas from the Web and assimilate them into the way we think and work. Assuming that no language lends an inherent advantage to idea generation – all ideas are created equal – the dominant language on the Web will deliver the majority of new, innovative ideas. The language of the Web is the language of learning. To gain competitive advantage in this flattening world, you must learn from the Web. Speaking the dominant language of the Web affords you advantage. So, for now, English speakers hold court. In the future, it might be Chinese, it might be Latin, who can say? But until we perfect the Babelfish, parents, educators, and businesses will be wise to have their children, students, and employees master the language of the Web.