The internet has brought with it a tidal wave of information, both deep and broad in nature. The access has made it easier for people to discover more of the world and to also specialize in areas of interest to them; for generalists to specialize and for specialists to generalize. Paradoxically, it has also accelerated the rate at which the volume of both general and specific knowledge is growing, thereby reinforcing the need to either generalize or specialize.
Chris Turner, writer and editor of the now-defunct technology and culture magazine Shift described this phenomenon particularly well in an article he wrote about The Simpsons television program and the decade that it helped shape:
On the one hand, the internet [is] unfathomably vast, encompassing enormous stretches of territory – and not just physical space, but limitless tracts of cultural and psychological terrain, as well. On the other hand, the new medium [is] proving to be as deep as it was wide. Stop in any one place, and you’d soon realize that that spot – whether a web ring cataloguing Simpsons references or a discussion group bent on changing the world – contain[s] a microscopic universe as complex as the whole.
In terms of specialized knowledge, the internet has opened up many areas of knowledge that were once closed and reserved only for those of privileged status. “This new accessibility of specialist knowledge may naturally deconstruct the hierarchy where specialists, isolated behind a wall of jargon, assume a superiority over those with general knowledge,” says Steve McCarty, President of the World Association for Online Education. “The multidisciplinary nature of the Internet for one thing is forcing academics to clarify what they mean to a general audience if they are to compete in the marketplace of ideas.”
At the same time, in terms of generalized knowledge, everything and anything is documented somehow on the internet. Surfing the web can take one on an exploration of the profound to the ridiculous and undoubtedly puts us in touch with more information than any previous generation. “In a world of deepening connections, individuals, organizations, and entire countries draw strength and personality from places as near as their local neighborhood and as far away as a distant continent. Mixing is the new norm.” In fact, one of the web’s latest phenomena, weblogging, is an exceptional account of life in general. Webloggers post commentary, critique, cross-linking and sometimes just nonsense, acting much like a highly specialized and robust yet tremendously broad and balanced newspaper or TV station. While still piggybacking on the (so-called objective) content from traditional media, it has taken curiosity and discussion in the human tapestry to a whole new level.
With a membership of over 17,000 users and over two million pageviews each month (and growing), one of the most popular and informative weblogs is Metafilter. Created by Californian Matt Haughey, Metafilter is a community of curious and generous people, posting links to information and entertainment all over the internet and discussing and debating the same. The posts are often timely, obscure and, in total, incredibly diverse. The topics can range from The Mars Gravity Biosatellite Project to Italian coffin makers to details of the Scrabble world championships. It’s a spirited awareness of all things around us. Other similar successful websites of the same theme include Memepool, a weblog connecting common threads of human consciousness, and Everything2, an ambitious project to hyperlink definitions of everything with everything else. If interest in these sites is any indication, a genuine generalist movement is mounting.