I want you to imagine for a moment that you and I are time travelling.
We arrive in the 2nd century BC at the Great Library of Alexandria. We’ve essentially stepped into the internet of the classical age: a place that houses vast amounts of human knowledge and serves as possibly the most important gathering spot for scholars of that time.
We notice something else right away: it’s not just noted thinkers visiting the library who talk among themselves about its great works. Many of the residents of this ancient city take great pride in being able to cite from its collections too.
Good ideas, as Alexandrians saw them, were worth protecting and sharing. They were choosy.
We move ahead in our time travel to about 50BC and find the Great Library is shattered. Jump ahead a few centuries and there is barely a trace that there ever was a library at all. Today, all we are left with are fragments of stories of its existence. We don’t even have a clear idea of what it looked like in its prime.
What is a greater tragedy than the loss of this library and the world of wisdom it contained is how we lost it.
Modern historians tell us it didn’t happen overnight, but slowly.
It was, as Matthew Battles suggests in his book Library “moldering slowly through the centuries as people grew indifferent and even hostile to their contents.”
Let’s think about that for a second.
Neither fires nor conquest nor enemies of free thought were needed to obliterate one of the pinnacles of classical civilization.
All that was needed was human indifference.
I consider that lesson often when I look at our modern-day Great Library on the web.
It doesn’t have walls and doors but there are plenty of similarities in terms of its purpose and ambition.
We fill it with stories and ideas, commentary and diatribes. And the occasional cat video. Much of this serves as a fine way to capture the zeitgeist of the times.
And yet I’ve grown weary of the word that gets used to label all of this: content.
I used to think that there was purpose behind that word choice–that maybe content was an economical way to describe text, audio and image based ideas.
I’m not so sure anymore.
Let’s be honest. Most of what passes as content online today just isn’t all that good.
Too often, it’s just thinking out loud. And there’s plenty of it: I count 598 million Google hits for the word.
Just as troubling, far too much of it is self referential. In other words: it’s content about the marketing of content for content providers to reach content consumers.
Do you really want to be part of that gig? I sure don’t. I’m pretty sure that’s why you remain a loyal subscriber to CreativeBoost: you’re picky with what you spend your time reading.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some moralizer who seeks to purge words I don’t like from our lexicon. I’m quite sure content still has its place somewhere.
I’m more troubled by what motivates its everyday use: that old foe, indifference.
Most online content is to ideas as fast food is to nutrition. It’s cheap and plentiful. But it’s not good for you. In the long run, there is a price to be paid for it.
Beyond just settling for flabby thinking, a diet of content–whether you’re a consumer or creator–leads to something even worse: unrealized potential.
You and I only have a finite amount of time to make our respective dent in the universe.
And what we have in this tick of time is a chance to share with the future what we’ve learned. It’s the idea tree that we plant for others to later enjoy its shade.
That’s the true power and wisdom of writing (and yes, other media might qualify too but those are not in my area of expertise).
Writing is thinking made organized against its will. And it is our job to put everything we’ve got into ensuring that our efforts are a reflection of our very best selves.
There’s a better way to look at the ideas you create and share. Think of it as your material.
Just as if you were building a house, you want something that won’t fall down when greeted by the first gust of wind.
You don’t want something that chases trends or quickly falls out of fashion.
Solid material–assembled with care, shared with love–has a timelessness to it.
That is how we can learn well from the Alexandrians, if we choose to.
It is our best defence against the corrosive effect of indifference.