The war between awareness and memory
“About a month ago Robert Scoble blogged about abandoning Twitter and Friendfeed. He said that he thought “real-time systems” like these and other micro-blogging tools were hurting long term knowledge. Turns out that he’s mostly worked up about the lack of archiving and quality of search.
On April 19th, 2009 I asked about Mountain Bikes once on Twitter. Hundreds of people answered on both Twitter and FriendFeed. On Twitter? Try to bundle up all the answers and post them here in my comments. You can’t. They are effectively gone forever. All that knowledge is inaccessible. Yes, the FriendFeed thread remains, but it only contains answers that were done on FriendFeed and in that thread. There were others, but those other answers are now gone and can’t be found.
This is not exactly the same idea as the theme in this post, because a lot of what bothers him can be solved technically. But there is evidence that faster, easier, access to current awareness broadens our absorption of the present and thins out our access to the past. Simply put, too much of now means less and less memory.
This was quite dramatically illustrated about a year ago by sociologist of science James Evans, who published a paper in the journal Science entitled “Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship”. Evans analysed citation activity across several large databases of journals (including arts and humanities) through their evolving history, because he wanted to see what would happen with how scientists and scholars responded to the increasing availability of back files going back in time, as journals were retroactively digitised. How would online access influence knowledge discovery and use? One of his hypotheses was that “online provision increases the distinct number of articles cited and decreases the citation concentration for recent articles, but hastens convergence to canonical classics in the more distant past.”
In fact, the opposite effect was observed.
As deeper backfiles became available, more recent articles were referenced; as more articles became available, fewer were cited and citations became more concentrated within fewer articles. These changes likely mean that the shift from browsing in print to searching online facilitates avoidance of older and less relevant literature. Moreover, hyperlinking through an online archive puts experts in touch with consensus about what is the most important prior work—what work is broadly discussed and referenced. … If online researchers can more easily find prevailing opinion, they are more likely to follow it, leading to more citations referencing fewer articles. … By enabling scientists to quickly reach and converge with prevailing opinion, electronic journals hasten scientific consensus. But haste may cost more than the subscription to an online archive: Findings and ideas that do not become consensus quickly will be forgotten quickly.”