On Linearity

It’s an unfortunate aspect of the human condition that we can only process new information linearly. It is unfortunate because those that really know something, that really, truly understand it, don’t understand it in a linear way. They understand the way that the various facts and points exist and connect together. No fact exists on its own, the idea of a “logical chain of events” is more a fallacy — an idea constructed as the basic frame on which to drape a larger fabric of knowledge on top of. Everything pushes and pulls on each other with varying degrees of force.

But because we are limited in our ability to be cognizant of more than a few things at once, we present ideas one by one so listeners can discern their meaning. You read one sentence, you make sense of it, and you move on to the next. I’ve been reading David Weinberger’s “Too Big to Know,” where he argues that long-form writing (essentially books) have become one of the fundamental ways we think:

"We’ve had to build a long sequence of thoughts, one leading to another, because books put on page after another. Long-form thinking looks the way it does because books shaped it that way. And because books have been knowledge’s medium, we have thought that that’s how knowledge should be shaped.”

It’s true, that’s how we thought that the transfer of knowledge should be shaped, at least. When we make an argument in the form of books, “What is not needed to get readers to that conclusion is left aside… because the physicality of books tends to ward sequence, not divergence.” It’s an interesting point, but I’d argue, as above, that that linearity is the only way we can communicate effectively to each other.

Weinberger is right that the internet offers an entirely new opportunity to begin discussing and sharing knowledge, though. With that, there’s probably a new medium that makes sense — yes, real-time, social, buzzword, buzzword, etc. — but also, fundamentally, one that uniquely approaches this dichotomy between how we acquire new information and how knowledge actually works. It’s an oft stated fact that the footnote was print’s ineffectual attempt at the realities of the way humans know, and the hyperlink was essentially a “footnote-on-steroids.” But there’s a downside to this, and Craig Mod words it best, I think:

"Petrifying. Boundless. Like standing on the edge of a giant reservoir in the dead of the night, looking down into its infinite blackness. Link after related link keeps pushing you along until, suddenly, you may end up reading about polar bears on an entirely different website, and maybe you haven’t been up for air in hours."

This, of course, is even separate from the simple fact that we can only devour one thing at a time. And I think that’s what a perfect medium of communication for the web would do:

"As more of our content consumption shifts digital, the onus lies on tablet and smartphone applications to find a way to create cleaner and more bite-sized forms of boundaries in a medium that doesn’t want to be contained."

It struggles between the vast network of connections between knowledge, the non-linearity of knowledge, and the desire to allow people to cap things, to slowly build up arguments and stories that become the vehicles through which we share knowledge. It should allow us to construct these narratives, but also make it easier to follow rabbit holes in our dialogues, to jump out and into the fascinating things that we usually just drive by. A medium for the web allows us to both tell stories, but make choices about the stories we ultimately want to hear.

Recent comments

Blog comments powered by Disqus