Scott Karp wrote a great post recently about the evolution from linear to networked thought, sparked by reflections on how all his reading was now done online rather than in print and whether this meant that it had become more scattered and non-linear, and as a consequence whether this was changing the way in which he was processing the information.
This got me thinking. There are times when I still appreciate linearity. Take albums. I might download and listen to individual songs but I often also appreciate the sequential context of an album. Even Tom Yorke has said how sometimes it is artistically viable to bundle music so that:
"...it's not just a random collection of songs. Sometimes the songs have a common thread, even if it's not obvious or even conscious on the artists' part. Maybe it's just because everybody's thinking musically in the same way for those couple of months...The songs can amplify each other if you put them in the right order."
And I still like reading books. There are times when I definitely appreciate the linearity, packaging and deliberate arrangement of printed material. So much so that I'd hate to be without it. I subscribe to Word Magazine and I really look forward to reading it when it comes through the door. And if I think about why, it's because I already know it'll be good. I know that the writing's good. I know that it is about a subject I love. But most of all I know that I can relate to the people who put the magazine together (David Hepworth and Mark Ellen are the kind of blokes that I'd like to talk bollocks with over a pint). They have some understanding of what I might like to read about so the editorial choices they make are likely to be good ones. It's a magazine targeted at people like me, so I already know it'll have some great stuff in it.
But I can really relate to Scott's theory. We retain a historical bias toward linearity, but the networked nature of content on the web is the antithesis to this. Like Scott, when I read online I will follow a trail of links from one blog or site to another, often with no set path but connecting up disparate ideas and thoughts as I go.
So isn't this just like having several books on the go at the same time (something I continuously do)? Yes and no. I might link up thoughts from several related books which I'm currently in the middle of, but rarely does this happen in the same reading session. The difference with online, and particularly with blogs, is that they change the way in which you read and assimilate information. Blogs compress the time window within which these thoughts string together into a cohesive concept or idea. And if I think about the reason why it might do this, it's because it exposes you to a variety of different thinking in a transformationally fast and easy fashion. You might not get the depth of thinking you get with a book (a quality which I value in its own way), but you get a hugely broad variety (as wide as you like) of aggregated thought stimulus through your RSS reader or blog reading session. So the pace and the possibility of ideas generation is vastly facilitated. Apart from anything else, this is as good a reason as any why anyone who is serious about ideas generation should be jumping brain first into social media.
And in a totally non-linear fashion I happened across Noahs post about whether anything is linear anymore. He uses a quote from Black Swan to make the point that it is non-linear relationships which are far more ubiqitous than linear:
"the internet and it's non-linear foundation is much more 'normal' than the command and control hierarchy that was previously imposed on information."
So is this a more natural way of thinking? The way our brains operate is often not linear, especially if you believe that our brains are essentially ruled by chaos. Our social relationships are not linear. Media is increasingly consumed in a more non-linear (and many would say more natural) fashion. So I wonder - is the web reflecting or affecting the way in which we actually think?