I just finished reading a fascinating book called Age of the Infovore by Tyler Cowen. It’s somewhat misleadingly subtitled ‘succeeding in the information economy’ and has a picture of a USB cable on the front; this led me to believe it was about how to use the internet and modern technology for their nobler purposes rather than just for watching videos of cats on YouTube. Only one chapter was directly was about this, and that chapter was the strongest takeaway from the book.
Cowen writes primarily about the way autistic people order their brains, their worlds and their activities. He views many of their habits as strengths, not weaknesses; he describes them not as disabled people needing assistance, but simply as people who have different, often more efficient ways of ordering their brains. He uses the term ‘neurodiverse’ to describe this. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of ‘neurodiversity’ to somewhat mixed effect.
Each chapter was fairly self-contained. The theme of ‘neurodiversity’ with its premise that autistic cognitive habits are strengths and not weaknesses was the only common thread that bound them all. One chapter was on politics; another was on stories and featured a lengthy armchair diagnoses of Sherlock Holmes as an autistic role model. Some of it was a little hit or miss. But the chapters that actually dealt with the blurb-promised techie stuff were fascinating.
Cowen argues that autistic people order their brains in very thematic ways. Anyone who has ever dealt with someone on the spectrum has probably seen that they can fixate very easily on favourite topics. My little brother, for instance, went through an Abraham Lincoln phase where he knew everything there was to know about Lincoln and, when he wanted to participate in a conversation and didn’t know what else to say, would offer a Lincoln fact to his captive audience.
The internet, Cowen claims, allows regular people a glimpse of the autistic brain: in order to deal with the flood of information overload the internet presents them with, they are forced to self-filter in the same way autistic people naturally do. Your chosen RSS feeds filter your news consumption toward certain topics while excluding others; your Twitter feed elevates certain contributors to a somewhat guru status where their self-imposed influence either contributes to the topics you’ve chosen already or gently broadens you out into other similar branches. You build certain areas of specialty (sports, politics, entertainment, local news and so on) that your consumption strengthens over time.
The most fascinating takeaway from this hypothesis? The internet has often been accused of fragmenting people’s ability to focus on longer, deeper narratives because it presents information in chunked little bits and pieces. Cowen argues that this is an unfair conclusion. What people are doing, he says, is taking these chunked little pieces and ordering them themselves into the longer, deeper narrative that isn’t therefore lost at all. The same way my little brother collected Abraham Lincoln facts one at a time until he had acquired the whole story, so too are you and I doing this with our filtered media consumption. At any given moment, you might have hundreds of bigger stories in your head that you are slowly adding to over time. My partner is a devoted baseball fan, for instance, and has numerous baseball blogs in his newsfeed. What he’s doing, in Cowen’s view, is not ‘reading tons of little blog posts about baseball.’ Rather, he is ‘constructing a massive and ongoing story about the history of baseball in his head.’ Every blog post, baseball card or magazine article isn’t as small and fragmented a moment as it seems because it’s all being slotted into this grander, more meaningful story that he’s had decades to add to and perfect.
I liked this theory a lot. It’s nice to think that we’re all becoming experts here, and that those moments you spend reading blogs, watching news stories, downloading music or whatever it is you do online count for something. I started thinking about the stories I’m currently constructing in my head, and I think there is truth to Cowen’s theory. I certainly didn’t start out knowing a thing about ebooks when I first stumbled upon Project Gutenberg back in 2005 when I was living overseas in a town without a bookstore and had nothing at all to read. But now, I can converse comfortably on the subject. I can clearly explain the pros and cons of different ebook brands, I can sketch out a rough history of the marketplace given the knowledge imparted by others and my own shopping history, and I can even perform basic technical tasks such as converting from one format to another or downloading a plug-in to customize my ebook browsing and sorting. I’d argue that if someone were to sit down and write a long and sustained narrative about the world of ebooks and you read it, you might match me in knowledge when you were done, but you wouldn’t exceed me. I was constructing the longer narrative all along!
I think that keeping this theory in mind can also help people deal with information overload. It’s so easy to approach a new topic and just be overwhelmed with where to start. I remember being invited to go the opera with my mother last year, and realizing that I had somehow gotten to the age I had without ever being exposed to opera at all. This was an entire area of culture that I had completely missed the boat on. Where do I start? Cowen would argue that it doesn’t really matter. You start with what’s in front of you, explore further from there if you want to, and your brain will put it all together as you flesh the narrative it out. It turned out that my mother’s method of choosing opera tickets involved deciding how many shows she wanted to see that year (about ten) and then just picking the ten most convenient dates for her, without even looking at what the operas were. The one she took me to was actually part 2 of a 3-part cycle and we had a few moments of ‘what was THAT about?’ where they would reference something that would have made perfect sense if we had seen part 1, which we hadn’t. A trip to Wikipedia when we got home filled in some of those pieces, and also gave me some starting points for further exploration. In Cowen’s view, that’s just fine, and my brain will order the pieces as they come to me.
Overall, some chapters of this book were stronger than others, but it definitely had enough food for thought for me to recommend it as a worthy read. I do think the title and blurb could have better conveyed the book’s theme than it did. But overall, it was a satisfying read and I definitely got a perspective on learning that I hadn’t considered before. span>