Theories and Canoes

by johnmccreery

Discovered the following thought by George Dyson in the Nieman Report via Edge. It can be read as a continuation of the conversation begun in Theories and Tools, but is, I believe, striking enough to deserve promotion to higher-than-comment status.

In the North Pacific Ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results—maximum boat/minimum material—by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

Theorizing in an era of abundant, easily accessible information may become something quite different from theorizing in a past when information was scarce and hard to lay hands on and finding and using every possible scrap was highly valued.

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3 Comments to “Theories and Canoes”

  1. I like this a lot. I’d argue that the log-to-dugout problem has characterized the whole history of social theorizing (as distinct from anthropological or historical investigation ) – there’s always too much information for our own societies, in which we are overwhelmingly immersed, and theory’s job is always first to create identification and sorting rubrics so that sense can emerge from the noise. But I take Dyson to be saying that this information overload now exists in all possible spheres of investigation? Is he saying there’s nothing new to find out, and it’s all about analyzing now?

  2. My take, for what it’s worth, is that Dyson is saying that information overload has now become more common that the skills required to pare down from too much have become as necessary as the skills for building up from too little used to be.

  3. I’d agree with that. I make this point in class in relation to the 9/11 intel. The information was there, but mixed in with so much other stuff that the analysts just weren’t up to the task of teasing it out.

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