Acquiring Knowledge: A Great Shallow Breadth Over Depth (1)

Has our approach to acquiring knowledge moved from the deep end of a continuum to the broad but shallow end? The Internet medium and associated technologies used to develop, contribute, and distribute knowledge with it, call out for knowledge acquisition through breadth. I think, in general, we’re using it to acquire knowledge via a great shallow breadth of sources over acquiring it via single deep sources. We’re developing an acceptance that acquiring knowledge via a great shallow breadth delivers an equivalent fulfillment of knowledge and in most cases, we may even be developing a preference for this method of knowledge acquisition.

Let me delineate a few parameters. I do not intend to make a value judgement on any method of acquiring knowledge. My main interest is to examine current changes in our popular methods of knowledge acquisition and what these mean for our understanding. I’m not thinking of experts in a domain of research (though there are some interesting challenges). Rather, I’m considering the everyday person that wants to learn something substantial about a subject or issue in his or her world.

Prior to the Internet if someone wanted to learn about a subject to any non-superficial degree, one would probably read a book. Documentary films could also provide some solid depth of information (or sometimes television shows, though these may also move us away from the deeper end of the continuum). Each of these examples is a single, self-contained, deep unit covering the necessary amount of information for the layperson to learn a satisfactory bulk of what he needs on the desired subject.

I call something a deep unit if it is a self-contained gathering of information related to a specific subject. A book that explains the history of Canada, a documentary on the social structure of ant colonies, a television magazine that devotes an episode to the unsafe build quality of a famous auto manufacturer, these are all examples of units about a topic that, anyone familiar with these mediums will recognize provide a well-focused gathering of information structured in a way that the person apprehending the media will be able to learn a relatively deep amount of knowledge about their subjects.

In contrast to the deep unit, consider the shallow atom. I call something a shallow atom when it provides a, discrete quantity of information in a concise scope. Consider an online encyclopedia (for example Wikipedia) entry about Canada, while it will provide some history it will not be sufficient in itself to provide the deeper knowledge the book does.

Consider a scientist’s blog talking about her day-to-day research insights on her observations of ant colonies. Each individual blog post will provide some information but it won’t provide the wholistic depth of a documentary on the subject. Consider, a consumer web site that allows its visitors to vote on the quality of different cars, it may indicate a low rating for a particular car but it won’t identify the systematic administrative cover-ups of safety violations the manufacturer engaged in, it won’t reveal tests confirming the safety problems. These are all examples of shallow atoms.

I would like to emphasize that although I’ve set up what seems to be a comparison between deep units and shallow atoms, it is not a comparison of the value or capacity. Rather I want to identify distinguishing examples. If my theory is right it won’t be because a shallow atom is equivalent or better than a deep unit but because a great, enmeshed quantity of shallow atoms can provide equivalent knowledge as an individual deep unit.

Design and Assembly

There is both a significant qualitative difference and a difference in apprehension, in virtue of the design and assembly of deep units versus shallow atoms. The deep unit is designed by one or more individuals to have a certain continuity of structure. Its entire quantity of information is conveyed via a predesigned (meaning not left to the person acquiring it) conceptual skeleton. The shallow atom, on the other hand is but a bone within the conceptual skeleton and requires that the person acquiring it design his or her own conceptual skeleton for assembling the required information.

To return to my example of the documentary piece on the subject of ant colonies’ social structures. A team of people no doubt developed a well-defined and edited structure for how they’d convey the information to their audience. The documentary would likely have some sort of introduction teasing peoples’ interests as well as providing an overview of the show’s topic. Later the documentary would go further and further in-depth about the issue, probably interviewing different researchers, explaining scientific analyses, connecting commentary to provide a more extensive context to the point. It may discuss parallels with human behaviour or technological innovations, and ultimately it would wrap up with a conclusion and some sort of summary of the its contents. The point is, there is a directed message in the deep unit that those producing it attempt to convey.

Compare that with the scientist publishing a blog about her research on ant colonies. She may post daily, a new observation she’s made while studying her colony. One post might identify a certain behaviour between worker ants and their queen. Another post might discuss the food storage strategy of the colony. These posts would continue for so long as she’s doing her research. It might be tempting to argue that the entire blog, covering the topic of ant colony research is a deep unit but I don’t think it is. Aside from the overarching topic of the blog, it is not a unit assembled along a structure that has been defined to convey a unit of knowledge. In fact, if it were, it would lose its value as a blog.

Each blog post is a more-or-less self-contained entity-an atom. The blog post contains usually, a bit of information about something which encourages people to comment on it or link to it (also a form of interactive commentary). Blogs are designed to encourage conversation. If the blog post was instead a whole book, the threshold for commentary would be much greater. That is, to comment, people would have to invest much more time and effort to read it. However, the blog post’s appeal and success at developing conversation lies in large part with the fact that it has a relatively low threshold to acquire. Someone can read it without fear that he or she is not getting the full picture by not reading the rest of the blog posts. That enables each post to be commented on, as its own discrete unit. It also means each post is only likely to deliver a small portion of information, so if someone wants to acquire knowledge, say about ants, he’ll only get a bit from the blog post. He’ll have to follow its links to videos of the colony, other scholarly publications, perhaps a government-funded research site from some other country, to round out the full scope of knowledge he wants to acquire. Of course, before the widespread existence of all these information media that scope of knowledge would likely have come from a deep unit, like a book.

But what does that mean to the person acquiring knowledge? It means he or she has a lot of additional work to do. There is no one author or group that has designed and assembled the appropriate information into a deep unit ready for knowledge acquisition. I can easily think of a number of tasks the knowledge acquirer will have to do, there are probably many others.

  1. must validate the trustworthiness of each atom
  2. must decide upon the utility of each atom
  3. must select which atoms to pursue for further related information
  4. must seek the right sources to use for discovering atoms

What about the message of the deep unit’s author? Is that another thing that the knowledge acquirer must take upon him or herself to develop? I’d argue that any person wanting to acquire some knowledge has a responsibility to do some critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, etc. regardless of whether information comes in the form of a deep unit or a shallow atom. Still, I feel that in the case of the deep unit, the author’s design and build, implicit with its message, is an added value in virtue of the perspective provided by the author. It might also be argued that that muddies the waters for the knowledge acquirer. Now, with all the new methods for communication we’ve developed, that perspective might also be obtained through later discussion.

In any case, the design and assembly of the knowledge acquired through shallow atoms is a very different thing (structure, quality, onus of labour, etc.) from that acquired through deep units.

Have you noticed how those belonging to the generation labelled “millennials” are often accused of having short attention spans? They’re always connected for social and information acquiring reasons. They use mobile phones, Web search engines, type short frequent text messages, maintain instant messenger windows on their computer screens, worship metadata (though not always consciously), use blogs, microblogs, social networks, view short video clips online as opposed to television, mix music in collage fashion from small clips of other sounds, etc. The items I just listed provide instantaneous access to shallow atoms of knowledge.

If we think of how the millennials acquire knowledge with these media, then they have short attention spans by necessity. In order to acquire the knowledge they seek on a subject, they have to pull together many shallow atoms.

Imagining ways of knowledge acquisition along a continuum from the very deep, dense sources to the manifold shallow, smaller sources reveals that people not only are taking advantage of newer technologies and media but also are changing their behaviours in response.

I have more to post about this subject in the next little bit. The implications of how we’re changing our methods for acquiring knowledge extend to information archival, opinion making, our responses to news, certain social interactions, and as I’d like to talk about in another post, the next most important change for the Internet. Search engines accomplished their job. And they created a big problem in helping us find all the shallow atoms we want. But there is an incredible, unexploited opportunity for search engines to evolve into something new, solving the problem they created.

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