There was a piece in the Globe & Mail on Saturday (12 September, 2009, page A21) entitled, “Information-rich and attention poor” by Peter Nicholson. Nicholson’s argument is that it has become very inexpensive to produce “knowledge” and correspondingly very much more expensive to analyze what is produced. In language strikingly reminiscent of Robert Pirsig, Nicholson talks about the extent to which speed of access to knowledge has replaced depth or analysis. He says:
“… When the effective shelf-life of a document (or any information product) shrinks, fewer resources will be invested in its creation. This is because the period during which the product is likely to be read or referred to is too short to repay a large allocation of scarce time and skill in its production. As a result, the “market” for depth is narrowing.
“There is also underway a shift of intellectual authority from producers of depth—the traditional expert—to the broader public.…”
As people professionally concerned with “depth” and analysis, we have to worry about this development. By “worry” I don’t mean just reflexively oppose, but to take stock of where we are, what we’re doing, what the consequences of doing what we do are and, what’s most important, ask ourselves, “could we do it better?”
Toby Brown, in a comment on Simon Fodden’s original post on Web 3.0, says:
“In Web 3.0 our data and systems will be discover[ed] insights (trends, fact relationships, etc.) lawyers may have missed or not completely captured.”
I want to see how this could happen. It may happen for the same reason that a good index (or footnotes offering cross-references) may broaden one’s understanding of the law examined in a text. My experience in producing an index is that, regardless of how competent an indexer may be, an author needs to review it and take great care that it is as rich as it can be—and I know each time that I can do it better. How will anyone have the time to deal with the deluge of stuff pouring from Canadian judges, legislators and others and prepare a good index for it all? If Nicholson is correct, who will pay for it?
After some 45 years of teaching and writing (and almost 50 years thinking) about law, I have come to the conclusion that the key to understanding any area is really epistemological; it’s how you know as much as what you know. We learn law in a linear fashion; we turn one page after another. We have to understand it in quite a different way. If I try to envisage how I understand the law of contracts—the only area I think that I understand—I’m in the centre of a huge sphere where, perhaps with the help of worm holes and white and black holes, what is at the back of the text book or at the end of the index headings is, in fact, intimately connected to what was at the front and the middle, and all the vice versas you can imagine. I fit the cases I read into this image and any single case I read may end up in two or more places as I work on a new edition of my text. This way of knowing seems to work for me but it’s hard, really hard, trying to communicate my understanding to others.
I think—I hope—that my understanding is rich and deep; it’s clearly only mine and others can and do disagree with me. How on earth will Web 3.0 deal with both this way of knowing and the other ways of knowing that exist? Wouldn’t we lose a lot if we had to settle on one?