What Happened to the Value of Being Well Read?

There was a time, and it doesn’t seem all that long ago, that people valued the company of those who were well read. We used to seek out those who were more than knowledgeable, more than conversant in this topic or that, but those who had the ability to discuss a wide variety of topics intelligently. Today they might find the evolution of the media interesting, tomorrow it may be the path toward energy sustainability. We enjoyed the conversation precisely because they were not limited to a single topic, field of study or discipline. It was the ability to draw the connections between physics and fatherhood, computer science and carpentry, Moore’s law and music that we valued.

It seems, however, that we are shifting. We now collect information we care about through authority models. The people we converse with now are one dimensional authorities, well versed in a single discipline. They are because they have to be. AllTop, TechMeme, PageRank, etc. force the intelligent to be one dimensional. While you may exist within their authority models in multiple disciplines it is all but impossible to maintain standing (consistent high placement) without a continuous stream of content related to a single discipline.

This shift has implications. Innovation is the first casualty. When we live in a box we think in a box. Innovation requires the kind of non-linear connections one can only make by being well read. It is the application of one field of study to another that yields our greatest innovations. Conversely, it is the immersion in a single field of study that is the biggest barrier to innovation. Practical proof of this can be found in every IT department in the world. We’ve created a generation of IT specialists that have little or no interest in the business they support. They’ve been trained to think about the technology to the exception of everything else. We’ve even trained them that they simply receive requirements and execute.

The second casualty is education. When we create incentives (economic or otherwise) for people to be one dimensional we tacitly encourage our educators – particularly in higher education – to focus on the specialty and not the person. Which means we will devote more credit hours to “core” coursework to the exception of general study. In effect we turn our universities into career training centers.

The sad part about this is that many of the a-list types who do manage to elevate themselves to high standing on AllTop, TechMeme, etc. are in fact well read – we just do not create incentives for them to share it. All of the incentives are stacked toward being one dimensional.

This is why I decry the emergence of the idea that the social graph is simply a tool for developing more robust authority models. When we understand that we no longer need authority models because your social graph is your authority model we may see a true revolution in information distribution, discovery and consumption. A revolution that is really a throw-back – the simple idea that you should surround yourself with the well read – and that by doing so good information will find you.

With that understanding you will be much more selective about who you follow – because your ability to discover quality information in multiple (and often unknown and unexpected) disciplines is directly related to your ability to effectively choose your follows. With that understanding you will quickly realize that being popular is interesting, but not particularly important. Winning is not having the most followers – it is being the most well read.

You may think that the best strategy is to follow the “experts” – our one dimensional a-listers – Scoble and Arrington for Tech, Rosen for Press, Kawasaki for PR, Brogan for Social Media. And while I don’t dissuade you from doing so (because I do) I would suggest that the people you really want to follow are those who digest the expert opinion and (being well read themselves) are able to provide the unexpected – the cross-discipline connections that encourage thinking beyond what is to what might be.

That is what I have to say about that. I fully expect this post to receive maybe 20 page views – but that isn’t the point, because it isn’t about being popular. This post isn’t SEO friendly, the title isn’t link bait, and I haven’t included pictures or other media to make it consumption friendly. It is too long, too dense and requires thought. So we know it will not work for AllTop or TechMeme. I only have one question… when did that become the point?