Reading and Writing have always been profoundly social experiences. It’s the reification of ideas into printed, persistent objects that obscures the social aspect so much so, that our culture portrays them as among the most solitary of behaviors. This is because in the print era, what we characterize as social takes place outside the pages—around the water cooler, at the dinner table, and on the pages of other publications in the form of reviews, citations, and bibliographies. From that perspective, moving texts from page to screen doesn’t make them social so much as it allows the social aspects to come forward and to multiply in value.
That said, the transition will take time. Not only do we need new reading and writing platforms which capitalize on the social affordances of digital networks, but the fundamental value proposition of our educational institutions—which rewards solely on the basis of individual effort—needs to change as well. “Plays well with others” may appear as a marker on primary school report cards but is rapidly discarded as children move up and out of the educational system.
So it’s not just that we need new tools: we need a culture which rewards collaboration. Realistically, the breadth of knowledge in any one area is so huge today that individuals can’t be expected to possess a comprehensive grasp of a field or even a question within it. There’s a wonderful phrase from computer pioneer Alan Kay, that “point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” Bringing different perspectives to bear on a problem is likely to yield better answers, syntheses that no individual is likely to get to on her own.