viernes, 20 de marzo de 2015

In the Age of Information, Specializing to Survive

Jonathan Haber majored in philosophy at Harvard University. And Yale. And Stanford. He explored Kant’s “The Critique of Pure Reason” with an Oxford don and Kierkegaard’s insights into “Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity” with a leading light from the University of Copenhagen. In his quest to meet all the standard requirements for a bachelor of arts degree in a single year, the 52-year-old from Lexington, Mass., also took courses in English common law, Shakespeare’s late plays and the science of cooking, which overlapped with the degree in chemistry he earned from Wesleyan in 1985.

Here’s the brilliant part: Mr. Haber didn’t spend a dime on tuition or fees. Instead, he gorged from the smorgasbord of free courses offered by top universities. He documented the project on his website,, and in a new book exploring the wider phenomenon of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. He didn’t earn a degree — the knowledge may be free but the sheepskin costs dearly — but he was satisfied.

“I wouldn’t call myself a philosopher,” he said, “but I learned as much as most undergraduates.”
Mr. Haber’s project embodies a modern miracle: the ease with which anyone can learn almost anything. Our ancient ancestors built the towering Library of Alexandria to gather all of the world’s knowledge, but today, smartphones turn every palm into a knowledge palace.
And yet, even as the highbrow holy grail — the acquisition of complete knowledge — seems tantalizingly close, almost nobody speaks about the rebirth of the Renaissance man or woman. The genius label may be applied with reckless abandon, even to chefs, basketball players and hair stylists, but the true polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin seem like mythic figures of a bygone age.

They don’t make geniuses like they used to.
Perhaps we need another Franklin to explain why. Thanks to the power of technology and the brute force of demographics, the modern world should be teeming with people of wide accomplishment. In Franklin’s era, the world’s population was about 800 million; today it’s seven billion people, many of whom enjoy the brain-building blessings of good nutrition and access to education. Indeed, the researcher James R. Flynn has found that I.Q. scores have been rising around the world for decades. Known as the “Flynn effect,” it is especially pronounced in developed nations such as the United States, where average scores have increased about three points per decade since the early 1900s.

Nevertheless, it is much easier to feel like Sisyphus than Leonardo nowadays, because one thing that has grown even faster than I.Q. scores is the amount of information the brain must process. Google estimated in 2010 that there were 300 exabytes (that’s 300 followed by 18 zeros) of human-created information in the world, and that more information was created every two days than had existed in the entire world from the dawn of time to 2003.
No doubt those numbers have increased vastly since then. But does it really matter? Like the physicists’ observation that the known universe has a diameter of 92 billion light years, these numbers are so large that they defy human comprehension; they are meaningless truths to just about everybody not named Stephen Hawking. When it comes to aggregate information, we blew our minds long ago.
Of course, not all information is equal. Those exabytes do include a few great novels, stirring films and groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Most are flotsam wrapped in jetsam: insipid blog posts and text messages, YouTube videos of cuddly cats and pornographic acts, ignorance that poses as knowledge.
“We are overloaded with junk,” said Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University whose books include “The Organized Mind.” “It’s becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the digital chaff. The problem with the Internet is anyone can post, so it’s hard to know whether you are looking at a fact or pseudofact, science or pseudoscience.”
That problem seems quintessentially modern; Alvin Toffler didn’t popularize the term “information overload” until 1970. But in the relative realm of human experience, it is as constant and nettlesome as death and taxes. At least since the heyday of ancient Greece and Rome, each generation has confronted the overwhelming struggle to search, sift and sort growing piles of information to make what is known useful. “Papyrus, print or petabyte — the history of feeling overwhelmed by information always seems to go back further than the latest technology.” said Seth Rudy, a professor of English literature at Rhodes College who explores this phenomenon in his new book, “Literature and Encyclopedism in Enlightenment Britain: The Pursuit of Complete Knowledge.” “The sense that there is too much to know has been felt for hundreds, even thousands, of years.”
In response, figures of expert erudition and taste — such as the Roman Gaius Petronius Arbiter, whose impeccable taste made his name a byword of discernment, and the 19th-century critic Matthew Arnold, who defined culture as “the best that has been thought and known” — have helped distinguish the dross from the gold.

Primitive search engines developed in the Middle Ages are still with us, including indexes, concordances and tables of contents, while the dictionary and the florilegium (a compilation of quotations and excerpts from other writings) enabled busy people to sample the world’s wisdom. This remains a thriving business; a sales pitch of modern journalism is that reporters and critics do the work (read the book, see the play, try the recipe, interview experts) so you don’t have to.

Encyclopedias rose in the Enlightenment. Tellingly, Mr. Rudy said, most early works were created by one person and aimed to synthesize all knowledge into a single, coherent body. Soon, they became collections of discrete articles written by a team of experts. By the 20th century, the storehouse of useful knowledge had grown at such a thrillingly alarming rate that the possibility of mastering just one area of study, such as physics, literature or art — much less to become a Renaissance man who could make important contributions to various fields — became less aspiration than delusion.
Julianne Moore’s character captured this sense in the Oscar-winning movie “Still Alice” when she joked about “the great academic tradition of knowing more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.”
That barb suggests a profound response to the explosion of information that has transformed modern scholarship and innovation: the rise of intense specialization and teamwork. “Once upon a time you could be a biologist,” said Benjamin F. Jones, an economist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Now the accumulation of knowledge is such that biologists, for example, must specialize in an array of microdisciplines like evolutionary biology, genetics and cell functions.”
“At the turn of the 20th century,” he added, “the Wright brothers invented the airplane; today the design of the jet engine calls upon 30 different disciplines requiring a vast array of specialized teams.”
If the information age makes knowledge seem like a straitjacket, David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, notes that progress often hinges on those rare individuals who have escaped its bonds. Artists from Picasso to Bob Dylan and entrepreneurs including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs changed the world by finding “radically new ways of looking at old problems,” Mr. Galenson said. “They cut through all the accumulated stuff — forget what’s been done — to see something special, something new.”

It is why, Mr. Galenson added, the historian and physicist Stanley Goldberg said of Einstein, “It was almost as if he were wearing special glasses to make all that was irrelevant invisible."
For many who don’t share that kind of vision, the response to information overload is simple: Just search and forget (repeat as necessary). Even more ambitious absorbers of knowledge like Jonathan Haber will most likely find that the key to lifelong learning is a human mediator, someone who has engaged in the ancient task of searching and sorting through knowledge.
Until, of course, a modern-day Leonardo invents a machine that can do that too.


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