Information Literacy…As we may think

January 12, 2007 at 2:28 pm Leave a comment

Mentioned on the Information Literacy blog, I asked for a copy of “As we may think” by Johnston and Webber, Research Strategies 20 (2006? 2005?) 108-121. The paper uses Vannevar Bush’s article as a “touchstone,” and compares and contrasts his vision with the current information environment. The authors go on to offer their vision for the future of information literacy.

Bush’s article is a great read. A couple comments:

Speaking of the benefits of man’s use of science, Bush states, “…they have increased his control of his material environment….they have increased his security….they have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life….They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.” This predated Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Nearby over fifty years, of course Kurzweil takes the concepts to the extreme.

Making the point discussed in the article by Johnston and Webber, “…publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record….” But as Johnston and Webber point out, this information overload is not restricted to scientists alone, but everybody.

Considering hope in our combat of information overload, “….The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.”

From Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near: p.41 “….this exponential growth in the power and price-performance of information-based technologies is not limited to computers but it true for essentially all information technologies and includes human knowledge, measured many different ways. It is also important to note that the term “information technology” is encompassing an increasingly broad class of phenomena and will ultimately include the full range of economic activity and cultural endeavor.”

Bush talks of  a “camera hound of the future [wearing] on his forehead a lump little larger than a walnut.”  It’s a camera.  This imaginative idea is reality, now, with extremes (today) like wearcomp, but in everyday use with cell phones+Flickr, or other moblogging tools.

Bush poses the question, “Will there be dry photography?”  We have digital pictures and CMOS, cameras in our pockets connected to the web (remembering Smart Mobs, here).

Regarding information archives, Bush discusses microphotography, e.g. microfilm, and considering a factor of 10000 between the bulk record and its microfilm replica, “The encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox.  A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk….a billion books…could be lugged off in a moving van.”  Where are we today?  What can I fit on my thumb drive?

But here’s Bush’s very important point: “Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it, and this aaspect of the later comes later.  Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled at by a few.”

And another interesting comment the calls to mind modern benefits and concerns of the ease of distribution of digital media: “Compression is important, however when it comes to costs.  The entire material of the Britannica in reduced microfilm form would go on a sheet eight and one half by eleven inches.  Once it is available, with the photographic reproduction methods of the future, duplicates in large quantities could probably be turned out for a cent apiece beyond the cost of materials. ”  Replaces Britannica with MP3s and microfilm with Bittorrent, and we’re there.

Bush goes on to describe specs for voice recognition software.

The comment “…creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things.  For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.”  This reminds me of Kurzweil’s comments regarding AI and enhanced humans.  We’ll let the machines take care of the repetitive stuff.  Later “…relief must be secured from laborious detailed manipulations of higher mathematics as well, if the users of it are to free their brains for something more than repetitive detailed transformations in accordance with established rules….A mathematician…is an individual who…is a man of intuitive judgement in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs….All else he should be able to turn over to his mechanism…”

I like this line: “There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.”

A call for the mentat: “…we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it….there may be millions of fine thoughts…but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.”

Bush goes on to develop the concept of the Memex, “Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing….alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass.  It can only be in one place unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it…having found one item, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.”

These comment are very interesting to compare to modern information space.  First consider the systems of indexing.  In  Wurman’s Information Anxiety 2 where he describes a complete set of organizing principles, or hat racks: LATCH = “…information…can only be organized by location, alphabet, time, category, or hierarchy.” And consider comments from comments from Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star where they describe a categorization system as using strict LATCH-like rules,  being complete and covering the entire world it describes, and using unique mutually exclusive categories, but “No real world classifications system meets these “simple” requirements.  E.g. modified principles of classification, mutual exclusivity may be impossible in practice, completeness may be sacrificed for expense (or usability?). ”

Clay Shirky’s discussion, Ontology is Overrated, is also enlightening on these points, as well as Doctorow’s, Metacrap essay.  In both, as in Bowker and Star, categorization schemes are not neutral, and depend on your point of reference – your politics, if you will.  And the web ‘messes’ things up and destroys the bookshelf paradigm, where everything exists in one and only one location.

Bush describes the human mind operating by association of thoughts, reminding me of great discussions of brain ‘operation’ in Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near and On Intelligence, Hawkins.  In particular I liked Kurzweil’s description of memory-fade, in these notes: p.172 “Say [you use] 1000 connections to store a piece of information.  [In 70 years] one-quarter of the connections will still be there, no matter how things change.  That’s why you can still remember your childhood experiences….older memories persist but nonetheless appear to “fade,” because their resolution has diminished. 

We might step back from Bush’s discussion of the Memex and think about how hypertext and the web are helping us move toward a real memex.  Speaking of which, how often does a Memex appear in modern fiction?  One of Stross’ characters in The Jennifer Morguehas a Memex!  “…my line of sight partially blocked by the bulky green-enameled flank of his Memex….”  Cool.

So let’s walk through Bush’sspecs for a Memex:

  • “A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications…”
    • This is possible today, surely.  And projects like Google Books are pushing us along.  Sort of.  Vinge’s Rainbows Enddescribes another sort of library project by which books are sucked up directly from the library stacks, shredded, and photographed in shred-mode, where later the digital books are reassembled from the individual shredded images.
  • “…and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility….”
    • Witness the search engine, and tags.
  • “It is an enlarged supplement to his memory….”
  • Bush goes on to describe quaint desk-like construction of the Memex, which I think we’d replace with our computer complete with scanner (the “…transparent platen. On this are placed…all sorts of things…the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of memex film….”)
  • Bush describes how you might call up a book, or several books, “As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item in position while he calls up another.” OK so our modern memex needs multimonitors, or at least multi-tasking, or tabbed browsing!
  • Now here’s a comment I can’t figure how to implement: “He can add marginal notes and comments…by a stylus scheme, just as though he had the physical page before him.”  This sounds like a wiki, but a “book” as the basis of the wiki.  This sounds like the Neo-book I’ve thought about, where the book is collaboratively edited, many versions are concurrently available, the most popular version is digg-ed to the top, but all the other versions are continuously available.

…more in future posts.

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Entry filed under: feed my pet brain, information literacy.

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