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This is not about Steve Jobs, although I do find a certain irony in the prolific repetition of so many of his quotes about free thinking, creativity and not living someone else’s life. But it’s not a new irony. We see it all the time. Another oft-requoted personality that comes to mind in recent years is Seth Godin; but there’s no shortage of people whose quotes today would have graced the actual hardcopy framed motivatonal posters of twenty years ago. Facebook and Twitter make that obvious. Sometimes painfully so…it’s flabbergasting how mindlessly some of this stuff can spread. There’s a Jobs quote about the value of individuals vs. the value of groups….but I bet you’ve read it three or four times today already, so I won’t bother. ;)
It isn’t that some of these people don’t have something valuable to say. The problem is that we get so caught up in the cleverness of the revelation that we don’t bother to pause long enough to internalize it. It’s so much easier to appreciate the execution than it is the actual thought behind it. It’s the ‘package vs. content’ problem all over again.
There is a deeper problem, of course, one that no one wants to consciously face: true wisdom doesn’t come in neat, 140 character packages. It comes with time, trial, experience, pain, failure, success. Lather, rinse, repeat. The more times the better. I think there are some slick quotes about this, too–in addition to the one on the shampoo bottle, I mean–but again, you’ve seen them. We are not Keanu Reeves and this is not The Matrix (well, not yet, anyway….not quite). If we could ram spikes into our brains and inject instantaneous awesome….well, let’s just say there wouldn’t be a Tea Party, or reality TV.
I’m not saying we can’t gain something important from considering distilled wisdom from people who have actually lived the lives to gain it. I’m just saying it’s pretty fucking rare that any of us do. And I’m not going to attempt to lay blame at the feet of technology, but I will say it’s made it a lot easier for us to disseminate the package while ignoring the content. Long, long ago, in social networks far, far away, information was much more valuable to the individual than it is today (I specify ‘individual’ because it’s clear that to a few huge corporations, information has become the ultimate commodity, but that’s a bit of a digression). When we went to meetings, attended class, talked with friends, and heard something of value, it was important to engage it right away, before it evaporated. If it mattered, we did our best to internalize it, as opposed to simply being a vector for transmitting it. We considered, compared, contextualized, and maybe eventually integrated some of this information into our personal paradigms in ways that improved us. Because we knew we had to. There was a sense of ‘use it or lose it.’
Today, the information is readily available, and the knowledge that we can access it at a moment’s notice leads to the common result that we never do. Secure in the knowledge that we can use this information when we really need it, that it isn’t going to evaporate, we keep putting it off. “Ah, yes, such a valuable repository of knowledge that I can use to better myself! It’s there….on the hard drive…on the iPad……in the cloud……I’ll spend some time with it after the game. After Housewives…..sigh……I’m getting…….sleeepy…..”
If you hear a quote, and it’s meaningful to you, truly enlightening, then hopefully you’ve asked yourself why it’s great, how it can help you, etc. before you rush off to tell a thousand other people. Because 989 of them will miss or ignore it, and the remaining eleven will mindlessly pass it on like a third grade note scribbled on a torn corner of paper. If it’s meaningful, ponder it. Internalize it. Do something with it. Then pass it along if you want, perhaps even (gasp!) putting something of your own spin to it.
I’m sure I can’t identify the point in history at which information started crashing in value (and equally sure it wouldn’t matter if I could). But I can identify an early revelation for me. This was about two decades ago, when I was in graduate school. We didn’t have huge publicly-available databases, didn’t generally have our own personal computers, and time spent poring over journal articles in libraries was as likely as anything to yield the next revelation that would advance our research. But we did have one thing that enabled us to gather a fair bit of information and store it in reasonably persistent form: the copy machine.
As a graduate student, I was fairly typical. I would spend a few hours in the library once or twice each week. Reading? No. Chasing down a collection of potentially useful papers in old, bound journals, and making photocopies. Once I had a stack about four inches high, my work was done. I’d add the pile to the other piles on my desk, and go off to drink beer with my fellow students and not talk about science. But I had the papers, organized and readily accessible. I could read them any time. How many of them did I eventually read? You’ve got a pretty good idea, I’m sure. But I damn sure knew the titles of the important ones, and might have even read a few sentences of the abstracts, and I would freely relate those tidbits whenever they seemed remotely relevant. So, pretty much a 1991 version of a retweet, or a copied and pasted Facebook status.
And none of this felt particularly futile to me, until one day my department head (Sam Ward) casually mentioned a quote from his former advisor. And yes, ironically, hypocritically (although hopefully I’ve added something of my own take on it…you be the judge), I’m going to end this piece with a quote from Nobel Prize-winnning geneticist Sydney Brenner:
“Don’t Xerox it. Neurox it.”
Todd Adamson is a long time lab rat turned professional photographer. In his off hours from the studio he teaches graduate students how to do extremely complicated in vitro transcription assays at the University of Iowa. Todd can be found all over the internet on his website, his photoblog, his twitter account, his facebook page, and his brand new ranty blog.
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Thanks! Can I assume you Instapapered it for future consideration?
So...instead of retweeting, facebook posting or even blogging about this, I spent some time thinking and cogitating and hopefully internalising the points you made. Nicely done! I'm guilty of retweeting "interesting" tidbits I find via the internet and yes, forgetting to really absorb the content. It's almost like just reading the headlines but not reading the article.
So... what does your article mean to me?
Well, it does mean thinking about why I'm retweeting/facebooking something before I actually do so
It means prioritising my reading time, unfortunately, because it's a battle sometimes to do justice to all the relevant, well-written and stimulating information that is available. Sadly I can't clone myself or simply extend the number of hours available to me each day... so I hope in retweeting I might have a follower who will be able to summarise or comment on the item I've seen so I can have a "bite sized chunk" for reading in my downtime - at least I can always go back to the original article when I want to read more deeply.
I suppose something that occurs to me is that my RT's and "shares" on FB serve different functions from my deeper reading, and maybe what I flick on to others is less directly relevant but still worthwhile and therefore it's good to share.
I'll spend more time pondering this, as you have raised some interesting points - and in doing so, I guess you've achieved what you wanted!