Toward a Less Self-Assertive Web

Working on my 83rd idea for my dLRN keynote, because that’s “how I do”. (I’ve also been watching The Wire a lot).

Today via David Jones this beautiful piece on systems theory comes to me. It’s from a new book by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi:

In our brief summary of the emerging systems view of life in the Preface, we have emphasized shifts in perceptions and ways of thinking. However, the broader paradigm shift also involves corresponding changes of values. And here it is interesting to note a striking connection between the changes of thinking and of values. Both of them may be seen as shifts from self-assertion to integration. These two tendencies — the self-assertive and the integrative — are both essential aspects of all living systems, as we discuss in Chapter 4 (Section 4.1.2). Neither of them is intrinsically good or bad. What is good, or healthy, is a dynamic balance; what is bad, or unhealthy, is imbalance — overemphasis on one tendency and neglect of the other. When we look at our modem industrial culture, we see that we have overemphasized the self-assertive and neglected the integrative tendencies. This is apparent both in our thinking and in our values. It is very instructive to put these opposite tendencies side by side.

They chart out these tendencies in terms of thinking and values:


And here’s the thing. The initial vision of hypertext was profoundly integrative (Bush, Nelson, etc). Read As We May Think again and you’ll see the idea in those last bits of the article is to make connection as valued as assertion, to capture intuition and synthesis via links (or “trails” in his case). Non-linearity is valued, and the holistic viewpoint — where a single node can simultaneously support radically opposing views — is privileged over the clean and linear trajectory of making a point.


That — through the vision of a number of intermediaries — was one possible future for the early web.

But in the early days of the web people fleeing the self-assertive worlds of Usenet, mailing lists and the like came to the web and built something that was more integrative than those conversational forms but less integrative than the Bush version. From them we got The Stream — the hybrid of hypertext with the self-assertive culture of forums, lists, and Usenet groups. The Stream is blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook feeds, YouTube channels, etc. It made conversation better. The Stream turned out to be the web’s killer app.

But as The Stream became the dominant mode of hypertext, it also pulled the web as a whole toward the self-assertive end of the spectrum. In many ways it kept drifting back even more towards self-assertion. Early linklogs gave way to analytical blogs which gave way to persuasive writing as the norm. The follow-me-as-I-think-through-this political blogging of Josh Marshall gave way to the this-is-the-one-true-truthism of Huffington Post and Breitbart. Comments were added at some point, bringing back the group domination dynamics early bloggers were trying to escape.

In the world of the Memex your space houses things useful to you, and the space of a literate person includes many things one disagrees with but finds useful to think with. The Stream, on the other hand, is seen as an assertion of one’s self, where every post must zoom as quickly as possible to This is What I Believe. The fact people must insist that retweets are not endorsements shows the direction we have drifted. To post is to assert.

And the point is that that’s good in the right amount. Self-assertion is important. I certainly want a space to express who I am, and to a large extent that is what I do on this blog. I provide a nice linear, rational, reductionist view of current issues in order win ongoing arguments and persuade you to join my cause. A Memex would be a lousy tool for that. Don’t take my blog away!

But it is *one* side of the equation. As Capra and Luigi Luisi insist, it needs balance. We seem to have nailed tools for self-assertion over the past 20 years. Perhaps we could work on tools for integration now as well?

4 thoughts on “Toward a Less Self-Assertive Web

    • So I have the book now, and while it is great, I have to say I am confused there is no mention of Koestler, who certainly originated the terms even if he borrowed the thoughts. In fact, there is so much of this book that is a vindication of Koestler, and yet he’s been written out of it. Why, I wonder? What am I missing?

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