Pierian Spring or Fire Hydrant

“A little learning is a dang’rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Alexander Pope

It used to be said that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing. Do we now have the reverse problem?

It is high time I updated my blog. It has been very nearly a year since my last post. Later this week I am helping to run a workshop on Social Media in Academia, so today I am reflecting on what social media can do for academics, researchers and others.

Social media can mean different things to different people. In running the workshop I am taking a broad definition based on this report from the Research Information Network. It is very broad and includes a range of collaborative and communicative technologies: Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs, Dropbox, blogs, wikis etc. How do these modern channels compare more universally-accepted tools like the web and email? Not everyone is enthusiastic. The RIN report highlights this quote from Prof. Susan Greenfield, for example:

“For me, this is almost as important as climate change. Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened – and the kind of people we might be in the future.”

Although this view seems fairly extreme, and maybe Baroness Greenfield would herself put forward a more nuanced argument, it’s worth noting (and it has been noted before) that new technologies and media are almost always met with this kind of scepticism. I am old enough to have experienced some of it the first time around.

When I began my PhD at UCL in 1992, the web had barely been invented, and email was still a bit of a novelty. Perhaps my memory is exaggerated, but I seem to remember that many of the more venerable professors would have had nothing to do with email at that time. Although most had got to grips with PCs and word processors, some still preferred to rely on dictation, typed letters and memos. I do know that when my first paper was published a few years later I was delighted to receive reprint requests that had been typed on special little forms and sent through the international mail. I duly posted back a printed copies from a box of preprints that had been sent to me by the publishers. I think I still have some left somewhere.

During my time as a PhD student I learned to use email (fantastic for someone with a lifelong aversion to stamps) and found out about the first web browser. I’ve always been an “early adopter”. I saw how easy it was to create web pages with a few lines of HTML and I helped set up the department’s very first web pages (you should check out the links, especially if <25 years old, or from UCL). It seems pretty obvious in retrospect that the web was going to work, and indeed it seemed that way to me at the time, but it was not uncommon to encounter people who thought it was a load of silly nonsense. Not even a flash in the pan. A distraction.

By 1998 only 10 UCL Psychology faculty had their own web pages (you can also see my page listed, I hope it’s not too incriminating). But then, Google were still operating out of a garage.

It is mind-blowing to think that less than two decades later (!) I can already access something near to the world’s sum total of knowledge with a few clicks, or even by just asking my phone a question out loud. This has transformed the lives of students and researchers. If we want to find something out, we very often can do so, without leaving our desks, whereas in the 90s it would require a trek to the library and an afternoon of hunting through indexes and shelves of printed journals, with only a slim to moderate chance of success if you knew exactly what you were looking for. If successful, you’d have to photocopy anything important you wanted to take away (the number of copies was usually limited). The internet has removed a huge amount of friction in the transfer of knowledge and information. Maybe the friction was useful, forcing us to reflect on what we had understood before moving on to the next question, but at the same time it clearly slowed everything down and acted as a kind of limit on what you could reasonably know or find out about in a year or a lifetime. So for me the benefits greatly outweigh the costs; we can and should make time for reflection, but we’re no longer limited by the availability of information, only by our ability to appraise it and by the questions we ask.

Things seem to move more rapidly nowadays (perhaps it is just me slowing down), but social media are nowadays regarded with the same kind of suspicion that was applied to the web and email, and probably before that to the printing press. Actually, I think (Susan Greenfield aside) perhaps we are just getting past that stage and academics are beginning to think that maybe there is a place for these new channels of communication, but we’re not sure what it is. Are the remaining suspicions at all justified, or are they going to seem as silly as the resistance to email and the web in a few year’s time? Is there perhaps a grain of truth in the concerns that social media is distracting? (Spoiler: yes.) And if there is a place for social media in academia, what is it? Can they bring benefits comparable to those we gained from email and the web, and if so, what are they?

In my next post (hopefully tomorrow), I am going to answer these questions with some concrete examples from my own experience. Drinking deeply at the Pierian Spring is not the same as drinking from a fire hose, and perhaps the welcome flood of information the internet has given us has also created new problems. I think that social media can play a part  in further reducing friction in the flow of ideas, but at the same time can also can help us be more selective about what we take in, and can provide a new space to pause and reflect on what we think we know and what we don’t yet understand.


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

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