Facilitating an “Impulse to Shortcut Actual Thought”
In providing access to information and knowledge that would have required a potentially, and for many, likely, preclusive amount of time, research and reading, the Internet shortcut has had equally perverse consequences as well. It facilitates natural tendencies towards intellectual laziness, where we co-opt and substitute others’ hard wrought conclusions for our own, without the benefits of the intellectual rigor, hypothesizing and failing, refinement and evolution from which those conclusions sprang. While we are busy manipulating others’ validation , we are missing nuances they discovered from developing it on our own. Eager to take bits and pieces of what others’ have said for our own purposes, we pay little, if any, attention to the greater, potentially contradictory, context of those convenient “truths.”
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“I HATE quotation. Tell me what you know,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal one spring day in 1849. He was talking about a very specific tendency. When we’re faced with an issue that’s meant to be thought provoking (in this particular case, immortality), we reach for the easy way out. “I notice,” he writes, “that as soon as writers broach this question, they begin to quote.” Quotation becomes a way not to add depth to your thinking, but to avoid thinking in the first place.
Welcome to the world of the Internet. What would Emerson have made of it? Examined from one perspective, it’s a place that provides endless fodder for the type of anti-thought he despised. He would have shuddered to find himself quoted and requoted millions of times (make that millions plus one), often with little understanding of who he was or what he stood for. Decontextualized knowledge — snippets that stream past as links, tweets, posts, memes — dominates.
But ask just about anyone, however stern a critic of online culture she may be, if she’d like the Internet to disappear tomorrow, and she would laugh in your face. Because the Internet is also a place where all of Emerson’s work is available and searchable. If you choose to delve deeply, the steppingstone for thought and analysis is there for the taking. It’s the dream of the Alexandrian library realized, only this time it can’t be destroyed by fire.
Like pretty much every other 20-something, I’m online constantly, from the moment I wake up to bedtime. My iPhone sleeps by my bed. I Twitter and I Facebook — so much that I use both as verbs. I grew up with neither cellphone nor television, but I’ve come to rely on our ability to stay connected. I need the Internet for my work. I need it for my research. I need it, often, for my sanity.
With one important caveat. When I need to write or think, I shut the whole thing down. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get sucked into the very sort of vortex Emerson warned against, to drift from fragment to fragment without pausing to consider the whole that any of them imply. I become a link zombie, mindlessly hungry for more: The lure of quotation wears me down.
The problem is one of limited time and energy meeting limitless content: knowledge being elbowed out by sheer information, context be damned.
Take this example. I’m writing an article on individual rights in politics. Gamely, I Google freedom quotes, which leads me to this one: “Liberty is precious.” Perfect. But what if I then learn that the speaker is Lenin? And that he immediately followed those sweet words with “so precious that it must be rationed”?
As it happens, my televisionless childhood came courtesy of my Russian immigrant parents, who fled the Soviet Union to make sure I avoided just such truisms, which become chilling once you realize their context.
In art, decontextualization can give an object new meaning. Artists from René Magritte onward have used it to great effect. We see a decontextualized object “in a new light.” In writing, though, that new meaning can be troubling.
When we strip away context, we strip away everything that enables us to determine what something really means. Words themselves become decorative — evocative, perhaps, but denuded of their essence. To recapture comprehension, a more classic touch is needed, a detailed picture, with precise strokes and every element fully rendered. There’s a reason the Soviets loved slogans.
Before the advent of the Internet, I would have had to read Lenin’s writing, heard it discussed, or seen it in a collection of quotations to know to even look for that particular excerpt. And had I done so? I probably never would have come across it. The first known reference to the phrase was in 1936, in Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s “Soviet Communism.” Lenin may well have never even said it. Now, however, the quote is its own free-floating pearl of wisdom.
Neil Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” called this phenomenon “telegraphic discourse.” After the telegraph emerged, “ ‘knowing’ the facts took on a new meaning,” he wrote, “for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative.”
So this is not a new problem. It’s endemic instead to a certain approach: the laziness of not really knowing what you’re looking for but hoping to find something that fits, the intellectual equivalent of mindlessly yanking open the fridge. I’m not sure what I think about immortality, so I’ll borrow from someone who’s done the heavy lifting and hope I find a ready match.
The Internet itself is not the culprit. It doesn’t quote people on its own or force you to quote yourself. And yet online, the problem multiplies almost despite our best intentions. The Internet invites quotation. Even if you start with a specific, complete thought in mind, vowing to use the web as a resource rather than a crutch, you are often pulled into the game in spite of yourself.
The qualities that thrive online are the qualities of speed: being first and being quick. Want a post to be shared on Facebook? One study shows that the shorter you can make it, the better your chances of success. Consider the new trend of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). The premium on brevity and immediacy is anathema to context, and perfect for cherry picking. Who shares nuance?
Emerson didn’t hate quotation, not really. What he hated was our impulse to shortcut actual thought. The Internet didn’t create that impulse, but it has made it far more tempting and easier to satisfy.
Emerson could have told us that, too. It was he who warned us, after all, that “he who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself.” Even in Emerson’s time, we were link zombies, wandering from morsel to morsel to see what we could glean. His solution? Carry your context with you; make sure that even as you flit from sight to sight then or site to site now, you do so thoughtfully, with your own “self-culture,” as Emerson called it, ever in mind. Only then can you be someone who “visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.”
Maria Konnikova is the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.”