Tag Archives: footnotes

From Footnotes to the Shared Information Aether

With Google’s search parties reporting they’re close to capturing the one remaining wild piece of information known to exist (rumors indicate it has something to do with a blue dress and birth certificate), we’ve gone from a world where lots of information was precious and hard to get at to one where we’re swimming in an ocean of it. We swim in it, we breath it.

If I said the sky is blue and backed it up with a wikipedia link, most of my readers would read the wikipedia article and agree with it. There was no need to prove the sky is blue: we all “know” that.

There is a vast amount of information that (essentially) all of us know. Sometimes it’s literally in our heads. A lot more information is so easy to access that it’s still common knowledge. How to avoid a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant is not a mystery as I’m connected because I can have the address of every Chuck E. Cheese in moments.

Knowledge is power. As long it can effectively be used, more and “better” information is a huge advantage because, generally, individuals and groups will better decisions and carry those out more effectively.

And, shared knowledge is shared power. Humanity organically developed a whole series of adhoc mechanisms for sharing information: storytelling, papyrus, word-of-mouth, books, magazines, posters, magazines, cartoons, billboards, bumper stickers, advertising…

That pool of ad-hoc mechanisms has been mirrored in the online world. Everyone is contributing to this knowledge constantly. Sometimes, it’s simply by the act of being connected to the online world and sometimes, it’s through a facebook post (say on growing peaches at 8,000) that 35 people repost and then gets cited in Wikipedia. Each of us, by being online, both passively and actively increases our pool of knowledge.

This pool of information has been growing exponentially for long enough that is many orders of magnitude larger than what one person (or perhaps all of us) can read, let along memorize. There is more information in this shared pool than in all the human heads on this planet.

When you look at humans as a group you see things that are not possible without a group: the collective unconscious, consensus reality (e.g. we agree that black is not white), the wisdom of the crowd (groups make higher-quality decisions than experts). We, as a group, share an unconscious framework, develop agreement about reality and make better decisions. These are naturally occurring characteristics of humans as a group.

But our shared pool of information, what I call the Shared Information Aether, is qualitatively different precisely because it is not naturally occurring. We, as a group, decided to build it. Essentially, we have evolved our group brain by intentionally choosing to evolve the species as a group


After physicists figured out that light was a wave, many went looking for the sea that was waving. Something had to be waving and it had to be all around us, like air, so that light could shine. Someone called it the aether and went looking for it. Eventually, they decided there was no aether, just the waving. Our information is like that now. It’s what the term ‘Cloud’ is trying to get at.

The online world was built from the beginning with lots of redundancy. Most specific bits and pieces of data are protected by error checking, backups, monitoring software, server mirroring and so on. And there’s a lot of additional redundancy because of how we share information. We gossip and paraphrase and report that and summarize and analyze and recombine into a million copies in a thousand languages.

If you look at the internet as a collection of computers, you miss the point. Of course we’ve filled the world with computers and connected them all together. Without them, the Shared Information Aether would not be possible but the computers are not what’s waving. With a book, information is tied to a physical place; it’s as if the pages are what the ink (and information) is waving. But there is no physical books in the Shared Information Aether. Words are not written on little pieces of paper. They arn’t even “written” in specific places. Information is not static; especially in the Shared Information Aether. It changes, grows, lives, flows. The information is literally flowing all around us

We have made ourselves the collective to change our future as a species.

What’s waving is us.

Grading College Papers

One of my High School teachers told me she takes the grade’s on an assignment, charts them and those grades cluster: A’s then B’s then C’s and so on.

Part way through my first semester grading college papers, I noticed something strange.¬†Even though this was a class for upper level college humanity majors, it was clear quite a few of these students didn’t know how to write a basic paper.

A paper is, is a bit like a lawyer making a case in court: it’s supposed to prove or show something. To do that, it has to actually start, preferably in one place, and get somewhere else (in an at least vaguely connected fashion) while backing it up with some evidence (teachers call those footnotes).

But, by the second paper, the grade clusters showed a bunch of students couldn’t even do that. What were basically english majors couldn’t write a basic high school paper. So, all these students needed to do to get a C was to start one place and get somewhere else without dropping me in the Grand Canyon while throwing a few footnotes my way. That’s it.

If I expect that out of one of my students, I’m kind of stuck with it as a rule when I write and publish. Some writing really does need evidence like footnotes. If I’m claiming Elvis is alive and well because I saw it on a webcam, I’m going to provide a link. If I’m analyzing the first album by an obscure Dallas band from decades ago, I’m going to try and give you links to some of their songs so you can listen for yourself.