Thirty two (i)

Dom loves tart tatin, but I hadn’t had time to make one this time. I excused myself upon reaching for the box from the local bakery. Ever plain speaking, Dom said he thought they made a better tart tatin than me anyway.

There was a time I would have decided not to make another one again, but now I just had an urge to work in the bakery for a day.

Our conversation had wended from my reminiscing about my History degree, to university life and back to knowledge in general, and I recall Dom and I both picking up on one tangent and saying at the same time: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

It’s probably the most famous quotation by Georg Hegel, a German thinker and philosopher at his most productive during the early part of the 19th Century. I’m a bit of a fan, and we chewed the cud about what he’d make of the social web.

Hegel didn’t rate public opinion. He didn’t think it could appreciate the shades of grey in serious matters, but has a tendency instead to polarize argument – perhaps in order to tug harder on those of opposing opinion, and then indeed to resist such tugs from the other side robustly.

And perhaps his conclusion holds fast today. Things seem to be binary. Witness the facilities throughout social media to ‘like’ or not, to +1 or not, to thumbs up or not, to bookmark or not. When we’re asked to rate something out of five, we’re tempted to go for one or five. Even the automated services out there that attempt to analyze the sentiment of social media contributions only hope to categorize them as positive or negative else leave it as neutral.

Hegel didn’t think public opinion could morph its considerable energy and combine its varied perspectives and experiences into a body of knowledge. In fact he believed that great things actually come from ignoring public opinion, from rising above it – and that the test of greatness is then partly determined by the public coming around to it and embracing it as its own.

But obviously Hegel could not foresee the advent of social media and related technologies. While social media does have binary manifestations, there are more and more examples of such technologies assisting groups of people in coming together to do really useful stuff.

What do you think of Wikipedia? It’s become the sixth most popular website in the world at the time of writing, so it must be seen by many to be pretty useful. And Dom is a regular Wikipedia editor as you know.

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