Sunday, December 27, 2009

Everyone Is Everything

It used to be that you could tell a lot about a person by what they owned. If I walk into your house and see a bunch of programming reference books on the shelf, I assume you work with computers for a living. If I see instead a collection of marketing studies and economics textbooks I assume you work in something related to sales and research. We are defined by what we collect, and what we keep around.

So what happens when we no longer have to collect? If I want to learn a new computer language today, I go to the Internet and access some tutorials. If I have questions while working on a project I open the language reference manual which is probably online as well. My home contains almost no trace of the last four languages I've learned -- only browser history, which is incidental and would probably not be missed if deleted. When information is scarce and hard to transport, we are defined by the information we collect; but as we rapidly move toward a world where information is plentiful, cheap, and therefore available any place at any time, that definition ceases to matter. Every one of us effectively has a world-class collection of information on any of an endless number of subjects ranging from common to esoteric.

That's only the beginning, though. Physical collections are cumbersome and potentially expensive, certainly, but their scope can't even begin to compare to the effort we expend in building and maintaining huge collections of internalized information. Literally years of our lives are spent in memorizing facts, dates, and scientific principles, because this used to be the only way to quickly access this information. Because some day you might need to know how gravity works, or who assassinated Lincoln, or why the Puritans fled to the Americas, you spent hours upon hours painstakingly copying that information into your brain, and storing it away for a future date.

In at least some cases this is as obsolete as collecting textbooks and reference manuals. If the point of memorizing a fact is that it might be hard to look it up later, well, that's rapidly becoming an almost impossible scenario. Did you ever memorize the locations of states and countries, and their capitols? Give me a second, and I know all of them. The freezing point of water, or how to convert from Farenheit to Celcius? I've got those too. Which foods are high in calcium, the period of Mars' orbit, and the difference between 'therefore' and 'therefor'. I know more facts than a speed reader with eidetic memory and no Internet access, and so do you.

It goes beyond just facts, too; entire skills that required both memorization and training have been distilled into a series of automated steps and distributed to the world at large.

The most obvious example might be driving directions. I don't need to collect maps; I don't need to study them, trying to guess which are major streets and which will be crowded; I don't need to memorize or write down directions, and hope that there won't be construction that will force me to deviate from my carefully planned route and hope that I can find my way back to my original path. I always know where I am, and how to get anywhere as efficiently as possible. Hours of carefully filtering and storing information via memorization and pre-planning has been replaced by the ability to access all possible information about the road system of the entire continent.

Think about that for a second. I, you, and every other person in the country know the details of our entire national road system, to the foot. Every one of us can effortlessly plot the most efficient route between San Francisco and Chicago, and compensate for traffic and road closures along the way. Fifty years ago, probably even less, that sort of collective competency at anything would appear almost god-like.

And that's really the point. Because copies of information are free, and because some skills that require training and practice can be standardized and automated, they become effortlessly available to every single person without training or practice or memorization, and now you are whatever is represented by that information or that skill. You are a master of historical facts, a perfect speller, and an expert navigator. Given a minute to recall the information from our shared memory you can explain any basic scientific principle. You and I are both many things that we couldn't have been twenty years ago.

So what are we? The ability to define ourselves by the information we collect either physically or in our heads is falling apart, but there are still many complex skills that take practice to learn; so at least for the near term some definitions based only on collections of information will stay localized to certain people. More importantly, computers are absolutely lousy at creating connections between various pieces of information. Synthesizing something new out of existing information can be automated in very specific cases, but in general, spontaneous information creation is still firmly in the hands of the individual.

In a way that's a bit unnerving. I grew up pretty firmly in the old system, where being smart meant you knew a lot of facts; even today, when you go to school in most subjects you're graded on what you can memorize and explain, not what you can create. And there's certainly more of a concrete "right or wrong" aspect to facts where you can prove that you're correct.

Creation, on the other hand, is all about what you haven't done yet; it's inherently nebulous and uncertain. It's a harder problem to solve, both for computers and for us, but I think it's where we're going to have to go in increasing numbers. The easy stuff, the stuff we've accomplished through sheer manpower, isn't going to be ours for much longer.

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