Onward to the Future! Uhm…who has the map?

You should read this fantastic analysis of knowledge in the modern world by Peter Nicholson at the globe & mail.

I have several responses and comments to add to it. On losing experts with peripheral intellectual vision (my new favourite phrase):
For now, the just-in-time approach seems to be narrowing peripheral intellectual vision and thus reducing the serendipity that has been the source of most radical innovation. What is apparently being eroded is the deep, integrative mode of knowledge generation that can come only from the “10,000 hours” of individual intellectual focus – a process that mysteriously gives rise to the insights that occur, often quite suddenly, to the well-prepared mind.

The question for humanity is, is there an alternative to this source of innovation? Perhaps the online interconected mind?
So we decry the increasing compartmentalization of knowledge – knowing more and more about less and less – while awaiting the great syntheses that some day may be achieved by millions of linked minds, all with fingertip access to the world's codified knowledge but with a globe-spanning spectrum of different perspectives.

There is an assumption amongst many open-source and open-knowledge advocates that there is an equivalence between lots of information memorized and indexed in one mind and 10 times or 100 times more information, stored online with many thousands of individuals processing and modifying it.  This is the kind of thing Google likes to push forward. Its a compelling idea, if a little frightening, that each of us as individuals becomes something like a neuron in a brain and contributes to an even more complex system.  But it is far from clear that this online 'mind' would be anywhere near as complex as a single human brain. If the data on the internet is not linked together and processed in a dynamic way then how would anything new ever be discovered from it?  Wikipedia and Google's databases are dead data with human interpretation.  The new and stunningly ambitious Wolfram Alpha search engine would pipe up here that they are actually processing this data.  But I think they are overstating their tool. They are really just automatically compiling statistics on the fly that will be useful to human beings, this is very different from the level of thought that is needed to connect the dots in the internet's constellations of data.

I see two interesting futures for knowledge and data in this context:

  1. an online 'mind' (or at least a problem solving, data access system) which we are a part of but which is not us. As individuals we will likely not understand it and progress could slow since so many people will spend time gathering lots of general knowledge and being 'links' in the global brain rather than actually understanding anything deeply.  If the network itself doesn't pick up the slack in innovation then human progress could slow.  In order to pick up this slack would require an active intelligence that could process all this knowledge such as those prophesied by singularity theorists or else one that weaves together the conversations and thoughts of billions of connected human beings.

  2. alternatively, we might converge towards a world of experts where no one knows everything but everyone knows a few things very deeply.  If communication is efficient between different types of experts and people learn to explain the essence of a solution quickly to nonexperts we could enter  into a golden age of collaboration that could be very productive.  This would not require a supermind to gather all the data on the internet and would encourage individuals to continue to acquire knowledge and to our brains for what they are good for: abstract analysis, analogies and intuition rather than storage of raw data.


Mr. Nicholson worries that the first case will occur (probably without the AI saviour) but I think the second case is more likely.

He ends with a fantastic quote:
Those of us who are still skeptical might recall that Plato, in the Phaedrus, suggested that writing would “create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it.”

which reminds me of a fantastic comic by Dresden Codak which contained a satirical story about the changes coming upon us. It references the singularity specifically but is relevant to this less extreme technology transition as well. Its written as a translation of a cave painting during an ancient transition of humanity in the face of exponentially expanding technological progress, the invention of the bow and arrow and writing.  Just a reminder that people have always and will always be afraid of change they don't understand. But also a reminder that all changes are not necessarily good changes and its best not to throw out tried and true methods before their replacement is out of beta.