Welcome to the digital revolution, where we crunch numbers, process information and mine data. Maybe we don’t get grease under our fingernails, but one wonders how far we’ve progressed beyond the industrial revolution. Though the metallic cling-clang of factories is rare, isn’t there something familiar about the whir of copy machines, the churn of CPUs and the click-clack of fingers typing?
There is still something mechanical about our shiny new information technology — not just the moving parts, but how we handle information. We’ve automated the process (and we’ve also got the inevitable “data smog”). What is often missing in our new algorithms is knowledge: You know, that thing that involves exploration, reflection, meditation, sharing, all that good stuff. Knowledge can be commodified, but not as easily as raw data. Technology can enhance the transfer of knowledge, but it’s not merely a matter of downloading.
Next to the processed meat of information, knowledge is organic matter. When learning a language or a new skill, dictionaries, manuals and textbooks can be helpful, but true fluency — the ability to use basic information (pronunciation, grammar, syntax) effectively — comes from practice, feedback, interaction, etc. It’s a more complex process (one that the Education Ministry is finally coming to grips with).
In many cases individuals who lack certain information can still advance merely because they are able to “absorb” knowledge. Children don’t need to study grammar to create a sentence. They listen and mimic, and most of the time, it works. Likewise, a new employee is more likely to learn the ropes faster by working alongside a veteran, rather than poring over the company manual.
Smart companies are starting to realize that knowledge management systems might be even more crucial than their IT. Knowledge management involves anything from setting up a person-to-person mentoring system to an intranet that facilitates the sharing of knowledge from the back office to the front office, and vice versa. Information is power, but knowhow is money in the bank.
Any good teacher will tell you that learning involves exploration, creativity and relational thinking, much of which we do subconsciously. This is why the learning tools of the Web need to be designed to facilitate such learning experiences.
You can find seeds of such an experience at Art and Culture, a U.S. site launched in January. It is basically a mammoth encyclopedia devoted to arts and culture (both “high” and “low”), but it distinguishes itself through its use of floating hypertext to link across genres, schools and disciplines. Hovering around, say, “Theolonius Monk” are not only links to related musicians of the same era or genre, but also related authors and filmmakers. There are also more nebulous categories such as “citational” where you’ll find The Pixies floating alongside Matt Groening.
One could say that Art and Culture is a highfalutin storefront for Barnes & Noble, since suggestions for CD, book and video purchases are prominently displayed. But beyond that is a dynamic repository of knowledge, recalling the 3-D interface of HotSauce (Apple’s visual database experiment), or even Ted Nelson’s Xanadu (the prototype of hypertext).
You might fact-check here, but watch out: You could easily be lured into a new perspective. The Web is the ultimate cross-reference tool; it’s nice to see some place that knows how to use it effectively.
In our quest for answers, search engine results are easy to come by, but worthwhile knowledge is more hard-earned, something you can actually put a price on. While Plato would frown on this, the Web actually has E-bays for the exchange of knowledge. At sites such as Knexa,
LiveKnowlege.com and AskAnything.com, you can submit a question and let the experts bid on it. At one site, I actually saw a request for “The Book of Knowledge,” an out-of-print encyclopedia.
On a related link is NuPedia.com, the “open-content encyclopedia,” which aims to replicate the approach of Linux (and the potential success of Netscape’s Mozilla). Either that or it wants to become a new flavor of reference portal. At any rate, the model is one to watch.
Cross-reference that with Random Access Memory. At RAM, you can submit random memories — your first kiss, say, or what you remember from the day JFK was shot. You can match your “random” memories with other people’s memories under topic categories or dates. This project seems rather whimsical, but its potential usage is significant. History books teach us one thing; collective memories could teach us another.
I was inspired to reassess our information economy after reading an excerpt chapter from “The Social Life of Information” (Harvard Business School Press), by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. While I’ve yet to read the rest of the book, their thoughts provide an engaging foil to both information technology’s cheerleaders and its doomsayers.
“Increasingly, as the abundance of information overwhelms us all, we need not simply more information, but people to assimilate, understand, and make sense of it,” they write. “. . . The importance of people as creators and carriers of knowledge is forcing organizations to realize that knowledge lies less in its databases than in its people.”
In this light, the growing silver sector of our populations should be seen as a gold mine, humanity’s greatest resource. Ultimately, however, we need not only to integrate knowledgeable people into the network of our information societies, but also create tools and interfaces that cultivate the learning process. While we’ve yet to reach that higher plane of awareness, technology might someday produce an impressive sequoia of knowledge.