Information Everywhere—Less useful than you think

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gottfredsonConrad Gottfredson, PhD, RwE
Conduit TecKnowledgy

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote “As We May Think” in the Atlantic Monthly. It is a visionary article and worth reading.

In that article, he observed the following:

“Professionally, our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential….

The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships….

A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted….

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing…. The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways, he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized.”

As you know, the need expressed by Bush is even greater today. The following is from another visionary, Paul Strassman’s April 2000 article: The Knowledge Devouring Web.

“The information that is migrating to the Internet is too valuable to become inaccessible and not easily retrievable in whatever language or format it presents itself. We need retrieval tools that analyze more than indexes that have been abstracted to maximize portal revenues. For hundreds of billions of pages, pictures, videos and audio tracks, we need search engines that individuals can customize to their own preferences, rather than inquiry formats that have been precooked by a standard software package.”

If Vannevar Bush were around today, I think he would be impressed with AnswerWorks’ search technology (see the TOOLS article). It addresses some of the most significant challenges associated with finding content. I’m impressed with the analytical ability and the ability to search across not only text, but audio and video content.