Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

I keep repeating myself

I’ve been working on this piece on the future of collective intelligence, and almost at random, came across the review I wrote of The Social Life of Information a couple years ago. The last paragraph jumped out at me, as it basically talks about what I’m trying to get a handle on now:

[T]he challenge of producing, storing and managing information is as old as civilization itself; the term “information age” threatens to be as meaningless as “architecture age” or “transportation age.” Most attempts to describe today’s information age have drawn most strongly from either intellectual history or philosophy. “The Social Life of Information’s” emphasis on the importance of organizational learning and tacit knowledge suggests that to a degree that no one has yet appreciated, the history of information is an institutional history, rather than an intellectual one: It needs to be told at the level of libraries and archives, businesses and publishers, universities and corporate research labs. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first book on library management and the last book on classical memory systems, which had been used for millenniums by orators and scholars, were published within a few decades of each other in the 1600s.) It also suggests that the really significant technologies driving large-scale social and economic change today may not be those created to assist individuals but may instead be the tools for organizational learning, creativity and remembering. The information age is represented for most of us by consumer products like the cell phone and Palm Pilot, but perhaps it is corporate databases, project management and collaboration software and data mining tools and search engines that will be the real levers that move the world.

I can’t decide if this kind of thing is good, a proof of consistency and an ability to think for a long time about something, or a warning that I’ve run out of ideas.

2 Comments

  1. Hm, Social Life of Information just landed on my bedside reading spot, synchronicity or something.

    Collective intelligence is really hard – many people in knowledge intensive fields have a hard time just keeping up a physical or logical organization of the key papers and works in their field, let alone trying to work collectively to do things like teach newcomers about what’s new and essential.

  2. One of the first text information retrieval systems at IBM (known as STAIRS, you figure the acronym) was originally designed not for eager customers, but for IBM lawyers who were trying to defend the company against the Justice Department. The edge it gave to the IBM lawyers was considered to be awesome and, of course, look who won.

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