Aside from a return to the blogosphere last weekend also provided some badly needed R&R in the form of a day in the Kent countryside. We were meant to be walking but as rain threatened we took detours to the homes of two remarkable men. First Down House, home and laboratory to the naturalist Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species radically altered our understanding of mankind, provoking a debate between creationists and evolutionists that continually resurfaces (and has been much in the news this bicentennial year). Then to Chartwell, creation of Winston Churchill, a man who lived multiple lives as a journalist, soldier, politician, trade-union-card-carrying bricklayer, artist, Prime Minister and Nobel-prize-winning author in just one legendary incarnation. Both visits have caused me to dwell on the nature of thought, ideas, information and work.
Since returning to my desk on Monday I’ve been amused to realise that my comments about Twitter being a river of information seem to be somewhat on point (a refreshing change). In past three days I’ve read numerous references to “stream” and “flow” in the way people talk about what Twitter and for that matter Web 2.0 is about. Of course thinking about information as a flow is not new: thread, flow, train, trail, stream are all words historically applied to the way in which information is shared between people. There is a commonality in the imagery deployed – a visualisation of information as being something linear and continuous or connected. What’s different about Twitter is it is not a thread but rather a medium for parcels of discontinuous information of almost infinitely variable usefulness, relevance and quality, to move along at various speeds and in multiple directions or even dimensions. Since loading Tweetdeck I’ve discovered that it is perfectly possible to sit and watch a stream of information parcels flowing in front of my eyes.
On a good day I feel like a heron perched on a rock watching the tweetstream flow by and choosing which is the plumpest, most promising fish to dive for. Conversely on a not-so-good day I feel like I’m in the Matrix, watching ribbons of code wash down the screen, and wonder whether I’m being reprogrammed or reconditioned as it flows in front of my eyes. Then of course there’s the suggestion that Twitter is “crack for the easily distractible” (apologies to whoever tweeted that remark, I didn’t have the wit to favourite it and I'm yet to discover a time-efficient way of swimming upstream to fish it out again.) Whatever one’s view, it is clear that Twitter and other media/ social media/ electronic networks are capable of transforming the way in which humans engage with information, ideas and possibly even with each other – or at least those humans with access to the web who are willing to spend considerable portions of time to splashing about in this virtual paddling pool.
Interestingly the two houses we visited on Sunday are only a few miles apart and both set deep in the Kent countryside in locations that command wonderful rural views and feel quintessentially English. Both have a sense of timelessness. Of course the “mothballing” effect of being frozen in an English Heritage or National Trust package is partly responsible for this: a house preserved as an exhibit is markedly different to a house full of the hurly-burly of family life (in Darwin’s case) or the extraordinary pageant of society figures that passed through Churchill’s country residence. Yet both houses were clearly refuges and places where creativity and ideas were given time and space to be nurtured.
Churchill employed numerous research assistants for his extraordinary published opus, whereas Darwin harnessed his children’s energy to aid his experiments by monitoring the work of earthworms and charting the flight of bees. Neither man laboured in isolation – but conversely each of them created around himself time and space in which to think, work and play. Time and space into which selected colleagues and collaborators were invited rather than manifesting as a constantly available flow of information. Both houses are characterised by sense of completeness and detachment from unwanted intrusion, which I suspect is intrinsic and not the result of the heritage package deal.
So I find myself wondering what role Twitter and Web 2.0 might have played in the life and works of these two extraordinary men. Would the homes they lived and worked in still have provided them with the space they needed to develop themselves and their projects? Darwin in particular spent years working on his theories. He knew that they would shake the establishment to its core and provoke controversy throughout the Western world, and therefore he refined and re-defined them scrupulously for years. Ultimately he was forced into publication by receipt of an unsolicited paper from Alfred Russel Wallace, another young naturalist who had independently reached similar conclusions. One can’t help wondering how much longer he would have worked before publication without this external impetus – or whether in a world of 24/7 external information exchange he would have developed the powers of observation that gave rise to his discoveries in the first place? Would Churchill have had an army of research assistants Tweeting constant updates on the life of the Duke of Marlborough manuscript in progress and if so would the Tweets have obviated the need for anyone to buy the book when complete?
Intrigued as I am by Twitter and the connectivity it opens up to us – I can’t help wondering if the information flow it creates and the speed at which the packages of wisdom we tweet and retweet flash past will aid the development and discoveries of new Darwins and Churchills – or hinder them. Both Darwin and Churchill fully understood the necessity to self-brand and to stay ahead – and each deployed the media of their age to this end. Both endured their own intellectual and emotional hardships, despite each being born to extraordinary privilege and opportunity. And each of them created around them a private haven, free of external intrusions, in which to work, play, think, create, write and, ultimately, to publish. I can’t help worrying that the exponential acceleration of the information exchange we’re creating online means we will never see their like again.