Once upon a time, we faced the scourge of Information Overload. Too many emails with too many details producing too many open loops to keep track of.
But now we have a new challenge: the Information Apocalypse. Not only is there far too much information to consume or manage, much of that information has now been weaponized. Whether it’s retargeted ads chasing us across the web, mobile apps designed for addiction, or emotionally charged news hitting us on every channel, it can often feel like we’re living in the informational end times.
But I believe that makers have something to offer the broader society in these dark days: an ethos that subordinates information consumption to the act of producing things of objective value. Being a maker today is a radical act. It means treasuring the insightful, the subtle, and the private, in a world that increasingly prizes only the novel, the sensational, and the public.
Being a maker requires patience when we’ve been trained to switch our focus constantly. It calls for reflection when we’ve been trained to react. It asks us to revisit an idea again and again until we’ve truly distilled its essence, instead of refreshing a feed for the newest of the new.
Mike Caulfield, in his brilliant talk The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral (which I will borrow heavily from) argues that our predominant model for the social web – blogging, Twitter, Facebook, forums, Reddit, Instagram, and others – is fundamentally broken. He makes the case that our survival as a species depends on us “getting past the sweet, salty fat of ‘the web as conversation’ and on to something more timeless, integrative, iterative, something less personal and less self-assertive, something more solitary yet more connected.”
This is the way of the maker – to use time to create something timeless, to form something apart so that it can be integrated, to iterate toward perfection, to create in solitude something that will ultimately connect them with others.
It’s tempting to check out, to delete our Facebook account, cripple our devices, and move to a log cabin in the woods. But this is ultimately an abdication of our responsibility. Our responsibility to offer our gifts to the communities that have nourished us. To share what we’ve learned with others coming after us. To participate in our democracy as informed citizens.
Being plugged in is a good thing, and there is value in every kind of information stream, from Twitter feeds to philosophy books. A balanced information diet draws from many sources: short and long form, simple and complex, trivial and lofty, familiar and novel. The Informational Apocalypse has little to do with the sheer volume of information we’re consuming. It comes from a diet dominated by the informational equivalent of fast food.
Applying the maker mindset to our online behavior and balancing our informational diet with more nourishing ingredients requires shifting our model of the social web, from a Stream to a Garden.
The Stream is a constantly flowing, endless succession of “events.” It is not a distinct entity that you can look at, walk around, and examine at your leisure. You can only dive straight into it, feel it flowing around and through you, and feel the force of it hitting you. Everyone’s thoughts and actions in the Stream are collapsed down to a single timeline, curated according to the sole criteria of “engagement” and centered completely on the individual experience.
The Stream is everywhere: social media networks are the obvious ones, but it’s also the notifications panel of your smartphone, email, Slack, and text messages. The Stream has become the dominant mode of social interaction via digital means.
The Stream has created a global conversation of unprecedented proportions. But there is, of course, a dark side. Everything in the Stream is persuasion, argument, or advocacy. Everything is personal and very urgent. It’s exciting and invigorating. This makes it completely unsuited to many of the uses we put it to. What we need now is a platform for reasoned discussion, for developing ideas slowly over time, and for building solutions to complex challenges. The web we have today is simply not designed for these pursuits.
Now imagine a different model for how we use the web: as a Garden. A Garden is a finite space, with integrated parts that evolve slowly and in relationship to each other. It is iterative, with each season arranging and rearranging things. The Garden is not collapsed down to a single path or sequence. There are many paths through the Garden, many possible meanings, and each time we walk through it we create new ones. We are constantly adding things to the Garden in a serendipitous way that allows many future, unpredictable relationships.
In a Garden, it is pointless to ask whether the tree came before the bridge. They are related to each other in a timeless way, and this is true of everything in the garden. Each flower, tree, and bench is curated by the gardener so that visitors can have unique yet coherent experiences as they find their own way. The Garden is a sort of experience generator, capable of infinite expression and meaning.
In the Stream, I may scan a headline about gun control that confirms my beliefs, and retweet it with a wry comment. In the Garden, that same article is captured, pruned of everything but the facts, and added to a collection of sources that together form a coherent mental model. This model is not perfectly consistent – some sources will contradict each other. But having such a web of conflicting opinions at my disposal, I have something that is bigger than any single event, any single source, or any single narrative. I have a living model.
We’ve been using the web as an instantaneous publishing machine. But it can also be used as a library. You could have copies of every document, book, image, video, or webpage that you’ve found enlightening or interesting, in a form that you control directly. You can edit them, annotate them, add links to them, summarize, and share. These artifacts become tools to think with.
This library of personal knowledge is yours to mold as you see fit. You can fill it not only with facts and authoritative answers, but with doubts, with questions, with tenuous connections you haven’t quite yet proven. On the public web, only the author has the authority to say what an idea is associated with. In your private library, your models have time to grow past infancy into whole new ways of thinking and acting.
And once it’s ready, then you can share it. Not as a hot take on the news of the day. But as a thingified idea – a technique or theory or framework or product or service – that can stand on its own two feet and have an impact on the world. It can even provide a source of income to fund your future efforts. In this way, humanity can advance, not through argument, but through true collaboration.
There’s a funny thing about collaboration. You can’t do it right from the beginning, or 100% of the time. It requires everyone to go away for a time and work through a challenge in isolation, to develop their skills or ideas as something more than an opinion. It is only when individuals take responsibility for their own work, that they can come together and be responsible as a group.
The web as a Garden works quite differently than what we’re used to. It isn’t a web of “hey look at this!” one-hop links. It isn’t just a conversational trail but a web of ideas. It isn’t obsessed with arguing points but with developing points. It isn’t a series of sealed shut presentations but a reconfigurable model of understanding. In the Garden, ideas gain value as they age.
Makers know how to build Gardens. They know how to consume the new, but subordinate it to the constraints of a craft. They know that genuine agency comes not from indulging every whim, desire, and reactionary impulse, but through voluntary submission. Submission to teachers and mentors, to the standards of their field, and to the buying public. Skilled practices give makers a tether to reality – a domain in which their own ideas and the ideas of others hold equal weight.
Everyone wants to play in the Stream, but it is those who build Gardens that will win the future. And by providing a way out of the Informational Apocalypse, ensure we have a future at all.
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