Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Deploring or exploring?

When Homo sapiens was still in the early stages of his evolutionary development, he hadn't yet figured out many other uses for water than to drink it. And perhaps to bath and swim in it. This is conjecture, of course, but the earliest evidence of the use of boats, or even just rafts, dates from much later than the emergence of Homo sapiens, so assuming that he was just using water to drink may be an acceptable point of departure for my story.

Water is one of the most abundant resources on earth, but if you're just using it to drink, you don't quite get much of its potential out of it. When people invented rafts, and developed boats – probably in the form of dug-out logs – a whole new world, literally, opened up to them. They all of a sudden didn’t have to see expanses of water as impediments to getting to the other side, and once navigation was thus discovered, waterways and seas became the most important transportation routes upon eventually empires were built. The rest is history, to use a cliché.

There is something similar going on with the way we use information. The image that I have in mind is that there are virtually oceans of information available to humans, but that the only use we make of that information is ‘by the drink’ – by reading articles or bits of articles. That way, the knowledge contained in the ever growing seas of information (just think of the amounts of information coming out of, say, microarray experiments), is unlikely to come out in full. There remains an enormous amount of “unknown knowns” (apologies for using a Rumsfeldism) if we do not find a way to do more with information than read articles and books, or consult databases. We have to develop ways of extracting knowledge out of large amounts of information. Thousands of papers, and thousands of database entries. Or hundreds of thousands. We can’t read those. We have to invent the equivalents of rafts and boats to navigate information. And still read, but manageable amounts (after all, we still drink, too).

In whatever information navigation we already do, we stay very close to the coast, and only to the coasts we know. We search. And we pretend that we are navigating the vast expanse of knowledge that search capabilities on the internet have opened up. But are we? Is searching not a retrograde step in terms of knowledge discovery? Aren’t we inclined to search for knowledge and relations between bits of information we already know to exist? And so foster more homophily in the process than before, when large-scale search wasn’t yet possible? And stay in our knowledge comfort-zone. Look for confirmation rather than for falsification. We should give chance more of a chance. Serendipitous discoveries are, after all, the 'stuff' of which breakthroughs are made.

Some people deplore the fact that more and more information becomes available. They talk of information overload or overabundance. And if the only thing you can imagine doing with it is read (‘drink’), then you may have reason to be negative about it. If you think like this you may seek solutions in selection, in limiting access, in having the choices made for you. But if you can imagine truly navigating the ever growing seas of information, you will not deplore the abundance, but instead, start exploring it.

Jan Velterop

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