Others have eloquently illustrated how the Internet, at its very root, is not an egalitarian medium. My fellow columnist Len Ellis said the Internet is “designed by and for the smart.” I agree. Smarter people find search engines easier to use. If you know how to ask the right questions, you’ll be first with the right answers.
I’m an unrepentant bleeding heart, but it’s not out of any great love for humanity that I ask we lower the Internet a bit from its intellectual pedestal. It’s a keen sense of laziness that prompts me to suggest all this smartness is too much work for too little payoff. I want more output for less work.
To my mind, the dividend paid to Internet users for their agile brains is a lot like the dividend paid to hunter-gatherers for agile spear-throwing. The Internet user who goes off into the information jungle with the sharpest mind returns with the intellectual equivalent of the biggest, juiciest mastodon steak. My aim is not to deny anyone intellectual quarry, but to point out the hunter-gatherer model is not the best way to get quarry, even for a cyber genius.
Pioneering sociologist Lester Ward didn’t have the Internet in his day, but in writing on the transmission of information between generations, he articulated an idea that seems completely applicable to the contemporary Internet. Excerpted in “Social Darwinism In American Thought” are passages from Ward:
The origination and distribution of knowledge can no longer be left to chance and nature…. The artificial supply of knowledge is as much more copious than the natural as is the artificial supply of food more abundant than the natural supply…. Intelligence, hitherto a growth, is destined to become a manufacture.”
History will view as us “early adopters” of the Internet. For us, the trend has been one in which we are content to leave the origination and distribution of knowledge to chance and nature because chance and nature have favored us (or indeed, been us). As the current online population has never known the benefit of an Internet in which knowledge and information were truly a “manufacture,” as Ward describes it, there’s no way we’d miss it.
What’s missing is someone, or something, to function as an information farmer. We need an agent who will transform the verbs of the Internet from “search” and “find” to “have” and “consume,” an agent who fills the pantry with plenty of what we need. I want the information farmer to save us from mounting a search expedition every time we need sustenance.
Like Ward, I believe we’re destined to have a world of information by manufacture. The rub is I also believe we’re destined to pay for it.
Over time, I’ve been persuaded lots of online information indeed wants to be free. I’m equally convinced most good information wants to be paid for, especially if “good” is convenient, thorough, articulate, useful, authoritative, well-organized, and/or well-presented. Just as it’s rare to find a farmer producing a tasty and abundant crop who’s willing to give it away, we shouldn’t expect those who supply our information harvest to do so for free. Yet to listen to the majority of Internet thought leaders, one would think it beyond the capacity of the human mind to consider a scenario in which the best information online wasn’t destined to be free.
Perhaps this is only natural. When the first agrarians were tasked with the job of explaining agriculture to hunter-gatherers, I’m willing to bet their toughest time was conveying the benefits to those with the steadiest aim and swiftest gait. After all, hunting every day provided everything they needed.
If only they knew.