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The Emerging Online World: Brave Perhaps, But Not So New by:

April 14th, 2010

At the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual conference two weeks ago, I participated in a workshop called “Shakespeare 2.0” that attempted to describe the essential methods that Shakespearean scholars use, and how those methods will change because of emerging online technologies. Two questions arose that might be of interest outside this field: first, what is unique about scholars and what they do? Second, what is so special about Shakespearean scholars?

In working to build Web sites, I’ve worked with several different kinds of professionals, and I’ve observed that the three groups that I’ve gotten to know the best – journalists, diplomats, and scholars – work in very similar ways, at least when it comes to publishing things. Their traditional editorial processes usually include these elements:

  • Gathering information and verifying its accuracy
  • Analyzing this information by applying their expertise and previously accumulated knowledge
  • Clearing it through the proper authorities
  • Publishing it to the correct recipients in the proper way
  • Archiving the published object when they are finished

These similarities occur because, in management guru Peter Drucker’s phrase, they are all “knowledge workers,” whose careers depend upon what they know even more than what they can do. They have developed standardized methods for disseminating this knowledge, which mostly revolve around printed media. Given that all knowledge is intangible, and printed works are notoriously difficult to revise once they are completed, the process of codifying knowledge looks pretty much the same no matter where you look.

(An aside: although it can be useful as a shorthand reference, I’ve always disliked the term “knowledge worker,” not only because of its elitist, self-congratulatory tinge, but because it isn’t particularly accurate. The conventional definition excludes, say, a master electrician, or a school-trained professional chef, both of whom surely earn their money because of what they know.)

William Shakespeare (part of him, anyway)Quite often, if you point out the functional similarities to members of these professions, they react with bewildered shock. They will point out the care and craft that goes into their work, and imply (or sometimes state outright) that you can’t understand how they do their work unless you are initiated into the mysteries of their field. But this confuses the content (which can be deep, subtle, and diverse) with the relatively simple tasks necessary to create and refine that content. Writing a first-rate journal article might take more classroom training than building a house, but the latter is considerably more complicated because of the number of tasks, people, and skill sets involved. In that sense (and probably others), knowledge workers have it easy.

The traditional print-centered publishing model started to give way with the rise of desktop publishing in the 1980s, when it became possible to do sophisticated page layouts with a personal computer and a laser printer. Suddenly, the editorial process became flattened and streamlined, because fewer people were needed to produce a publication.

At the time, many commentators said that desktop publishing had sparked a “revolution,” but now we can see that it was only the first phase. Computers automated and transformed the parts of the process that came prior to a document’s publication. The Internet made printing less necessary, and called into question whether a  “document” was the only — or best — way to organize sophisticated information.

We are still working through the implications of this revolution (and there could be more phases to come). In the online world, the concept of an “archive” is effectively obsolete: a site’s content can be reshaped, re-edited, and redefined as needed. Visitors increasingly expect the possibility of dialogue in the Web sites they visit, rather than a one-way transfer of information. This has profound ramifications for knowledge workers, who are used to speaking from a position of comfortable authority (journalists and academics being two very prominent examples).

Even though these issues are widespread, many people tend to think they’re uniquely challenged in their field by these shifts. This brings to mind a famous passage in the last scene of “The Tempest,” where Miranda beholds the island on which she is shipwrecked. (You knew there would be a Shakespeare quotation at some point in this blog entry, didn’t you?)

Miranda: …O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Prospero: ‘Tis new to thee.

(Act V, Scene 1)

Prospero’s wry response to his daughter indicates that, no matter how outwardly unusual their surroundings might be, he has lived long enough to know that the new world is not essentially different than the world they left behind. Likewise, the emerging online culture has elements in common with ancient oral cultures: group collaboration, a bias toward the spoken and performed word (think of YouTube’s ascendance), and temporal immediacy. There was no “end state” for Homer’s epic poems when they existed in the memories of Greek bards, and so they were continuously reworked and refined for centuries before they were written down. Artists in the Middle Ages conveyed complex ideas through visual media (architecture, stained glass, sculpture, plays, pageants, etc.) Shakespeare lived in a time when the printed word was ascendant, but hadn’t yet triumphed over the spoken word, and they influenced each other just as print and the Internet influence each other today.

So if you’re doing knowledge-related work, and you’re looking to answer the same kinds of questions that were posed in our workshop, you can look at other professions and see what you can learn, and then figure out how to adapt their solutions to your specific circumstances. Ransack the past ruthlessly, too.

And when you encounter ideas that you want to incorporate, take the advice attributed to Sir Laurence Olivier: “Good actors borrow. Great actors steal.”

Miranda – The Tempest (John William Waterhouse, 1916)

Tags: Web Development

One Comment on “The Emerging Online World: Brave Perhaps, But Not So New”

  1. Eric, I love it! Especially the comparison of today’s emerging online culture to ancient oral cultures.

    It’s thanks to the written record that we have access to ancient Greek poetry today. I wonder what electronic record could emerge from today’s online culture that will be referenced a few thousand years from now? Keyboard Cat, perhaps? 😉

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