Viewpoint: How to invent in an age of information overload
- 21 November 2012
- From the section Technology
In 1945, Vannevar Bush, the then-director of the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development, penned a poignant and prescient essay titled "As We May Think."
In it, he explores the challenges of information overload in an era of rapid technological innovation.
More than half a century before blogging, instagramming, tweeting, and the rest of today's ever-proliferating means of producing content, Bush laments the unmanageable scale of the recorded human experience.
He writes: "The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record."
He goes on to envision something called the "memex" - from "memory" and "index" - a kind of desk-sized personal hard drive decades before those became a common way of organising information.
A user would store all of his books, photographs, film reels, and so forth in the memex.
In making this personal library navigable and useful, Bush emphasised the importance of what we now call hyperlinks and metadata - information about the information, often based on associations.
He marvels at the state of technology, where microfilm compression would soon allow for the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica to fit in the volume of a matchbox.
The Harvard scientist Sri Kosuri recently spoke about his team's groundbreaking feat of encoding the world's first book onto a DNA molecule. He said that if all the world's existing information, which amounts to an estimated 1.8 trillion hard drives, were encoded on DNA, it would be the size of a pencil.
So we've come a long way. But Bush admonished that as much as we may be able to compress the information and automate its retrieval, that's only half the equation - the other half is making connections, which can only take place in the mind of the memex user and cannot be outsourced to the machine itself.
This, I believe, is as true today as it was then. And it is the defining characteristic of what we often call "creativity" - this combinatorial process that brings together existing ideas and bits of knowledge and memories and information into new combinations.
One of the most familiar examples of this is Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. The common tale implies a search for a solution to a problem, followed by a Eureka moment, and the transfer of technology from the wine press to the printing press.
But Gutenberg's innovation was the result of far more sophisticated "associative indexing," to use Vannevar Bush's term.
He didn't just merge the wine press with the idea of movable type. He sampled from a much wider array of technologies and fields.
From chemistry, he created a new and better kind of ink that was more resilient than anything used before. From metallurgy, he built a metal type that was not just easily cast but also had a consistent look. From the concept of division of labour and service design, he enlisted an army of workers in a well-oiled machine that produced books at an unprecedented rate.
It was the convergence of all these domains of knowledge that made the printing press efficient enough to be a success.
Fast-forward half a millennium and, the computer is a near-identical tale, combining a number of existing technologies, all of which were in place by 1918, but which weren't combined together into the first working computer until nearly three decades later.
The point of all this is that it is not the existence of knowledge but the convergence and cross-pollination of knowledge that drives progress.
Now, the challenge with the internet is that it's a medium increasingly well-tailored for helping us find more of what we know we're looking for, but increasingly poorly suited to helping us discover what we don't yet know exists and thus don't yet care to be interested in.
This creates a kind of "filter bubble" - to use internet activist Eli Pariser's term - that only deepens our existing interests rather than broadening our intellectual horizons and filling our mental libraries with precisely the kind of diverse pieces that we can then combine into new ideas.
So how do we discover what we don't yet know we're interested in and take an interest in what doesn't appear to be "useful"?
Because it's been applied so indiscriminately to such a large spectrum of activities, "curation" is terrible term. But terrible as it may be, "curation" is a buzzword placeholder for a very real and tangible service of investing creative and intellectual labour in sifting the signal from the noise in an age of actual information overload.
It brings to the forefront that which is interesting, meaningful, and stimulating and memorable.
I recently saw designer Simon Collision speak at the Creative Mornings breakfast lecture series, and he captured the present challenge wonderfully. He said, "I collect articles in Readability and Instapaper like pennies - and, like pennies, I do nothing with them."
A great curator, to me, is someone who takes such bits of information and transmutes them into useful knowledge.
It's someone who shines a spotlight on the timeless corners of the "common record", the ones that are perhaps obscured from view, or forgotten, or poorly understood, making them timely again by contextualising them and linking them to ideas and issues of present urgency, correlating and interpreting.
It's this transmutation of information into practical wisdom about how the world works, and moral wisdom about how the world ought to work that sets the human apart from the algorithm - and from the computer.
It offers, I believe, the only real hope of making use and making sense of humanity's collective knowledge.
Maria Popova is editor of the essay website Brain Pickings, which she describes as "a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness".
This article is an edited version of a talk she delivered for BBC Radio 4's Four Thought which will be broadcast in the UK at 2045 GMT on 21 November