What questions aren’t we asking?

Over at Fururamb Martin posted this quote by Kevin Kelly:

Machines are for answers; humans are for questions. The world that Google is constructing — a world of cheap and free answers — having answers is not going to be very significant or important. Having a really great question will be where all the value is.

Asking the right questions has almost always been more relevant than the actual answers. But I really like the way this quote puts it in context of the internet age. What questions aren’t we asking? And how much of the Internet is not being indexed and returned in our searches?


Information diets

What happens when we finally reach a point of information saturation? Can we see information in the same way as food? Some food would be healthy, some would be unhealthy, but no matter what food – overeating is never a good thing.

In 2004 Jimmy Wales was quoted saying (“Wikimedia Founder Jimmy Wales Responds,” Slashdot (200407-28)):

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge

This is, in essence, a wonderful idea – but imagine what will happen in a world were the sum of all human knowledge is available? I began to explore this in a presentation called Wikipedia & Dr Faustus? where I discussed the effects all the worlds information being made available.

The problem with wishing for access to information is that we today have an infrastructure that can provide all the information that we desire but the technology will not discriminate between healthy and unhealthy information. As part of summer reading I began The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser and came across an interesting quote from Danah Boyd from her speech at the 2009 Web 2.0 Expo:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat an sugars because they’re rare in nature… In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Maybe Boyd is making a value judgement on the different forms of information and compares the “gross, violent, or sexual” to fatty foods – which would probably make necessary facts and information (e.g. maps, statistics) high protein or high fiber. In relation to food we are programmed for fats and sugars but in relation to information we are programmed to relationships. Information about which berries are edible varies but information about relations is universal. We are programmed to be wary of precisely the gross, the sexual, the humiliating and the embarrassing – our survival in the group depends upon it.

The problem is that our interests in these areas is related to other people, people who we are not related to or dependent upon they serve only as entertainment or simple diversion. The evolutionary role of diversion is unclear but we certainly do seem to desire it – or at least fear boredom. So in our desire to avoid boredom we overindulge in our consumption of unhealthy information.

There are basically two ways of dealing with over-consumption (1) more exercise, or (2) dieting. The former is not really efficient but is more a method of coping with the effects of over-consumption. The latter is healthier as it reduces the intake and avoids the negative side effects of over-consumption. Exercise is hard work, but dieting is harder still. It goes against all our natural instincts to overindulge in preparation for the next information glut.

We need to learn healthy information habits right from the start and to ensure that we keep away from information binges. Staying information healthy may be important, but it sure sounds boring.

Political Economy of Innovation

Here is another interesting book available for download under a Creative Commons BY NC SA license. Its Transforming Global Information and Communication Markets: The Political Economy of Innovation by Peter F. Cowhey and Jonathan D. Aronson. Download it, buy it and check out the blog for extra material.

Innovation in information and communication technology (ICT) fuels the growth of the global economy. How ICT markets evolve depends on politics and policy, and since the 1950s periodic overhauls of ICT policy have transformed competition and innovation. For example, in the 1980s and the 1990s a revolution in communication policy (the introduction of sweeping competition) also transformed the information market. Today, the diffusion of Internet, wireless, and broadband technology, growing modularity in the design of technologies, distributed computing infrastructures, and rapidly changing business models signal another shift. This pathbreaking examination of ICT from a political economy perspective argues that continued rapid innovation and economic growth require new approaches in global governance that will reconcile diverse interests and enable competition to flourish.

The authors (two of whom were architects of international ICT policy reforms in the 1990s) discuss this crucial turning point in both theoretical and practical terms, analyzing changes in ICT markets, examining three case studies, and considering principles and norms for future global policies.

Run Fatboy Run

This post was almost called Run Forrest Run but the comedy Run Fatboy Run (it is a must see!) is more appropriate for several reasons – which will become obvious if you read on.

As a writer I am always slightly surprised and very flattered when someone says that they have read something I have written, it makes no difference whether the text is my blog or my PhD. When someone comments on my writing or responds to it the text becomes alive and an exchange of ideas begins. This is fun.

A few people seem to read my blog as a way of keeping track of me and what I am doing. To be fair this group mainly consists of my mother who likes to know where I am in the world (and occasionally why I am there) – Hello Mum!

With the dawn of social networking sites and microblogging more people are subjected to my shorter bursts of everyday information. Updating my status via ping.fm means that the trivial status line in facebook becomes a part of an ongoing background chatter. My friends can see what I am doing and some of them will comment on my actions. My comments on their comments will turn the whole thing into micro-conversations of massive trivia. Something is happening here – not sure what it all means… Yet.

Anyway this all came about when one of my work collegaues (and FB friends) dropped by my office and commented on the fact that many of my status updates on FB involved my running. She asked why this was. Suddenly all the little micro-comments had been harvested and analysed – in the nonchalant way in which the mind works and formulated into a question.

So it’s time to officially announce the fact that I am officially training for a specific goal. My running became vaguely serious in September last year when I succumbed to temptation and bought real running gear. I discussed this online too in a post called Slippery Slope to Spandex. Since then I have been running for fun and exercise.

Then a couple of weeks ago in a fit of misguided hubris I registered for my first ever race. And I mean EVER. I never even did sports as a kid. So now on the 16 May I shall be running a local half-marathon called Göteborgsvarvet. I will not be alone in this there are already over 36 000 runners registered.

So why write all this here? Well to paraphrase an aweful song which I haven’t been able to lose since my teenage years: it’s my blog and I’ll write if I want to. But in reality I want to write it down to increase the pressure, to make sure that I will go through with the whole affair. By placing this text online I am bringing to bear the tools of reputation and public shaming to make sure I will go through with this impluse decision.

Photo: Running man by Tleilaxus (CC BY-NC-SA)

All I can say is: run fatboy run…

Interesting course offered at Lund

Intellectual property tends to be taught by and to lawyers which is a shame since they tend to focus on addressing the questions of how the law works. This handyman approach is necessary since most of the students are going to go out an apply the law – the idea is that they do not really need to understand the law beyond its application. We do not educate law students we simply fill them with facts.

So when law courses are taught outside the auspices of the law department it’s time to sit up and listen.

The course Intellectual Property and Digital Information: Law, Politics, and Culture is being offered by the section for ABM (Archive, Library, Information and Museum Science) of the Department of Cultural Sciences. Here is part of the course description:

The course is intended to deal with these issues from a number of different perspectives, specifically considering cultural, political, legal, but also economical aspects, including those relevant outside a Western context. It will provide an overview of the legal situation in a national, European, and international setting and also look at some hotly debated disputes and international agreements. We will gain an understanding of the various forms of intellectual property (copyright, patent, trademark, etc.) as well as concern ourselves with alternative concepts including the creative commons, open access, open source, and also file-sharing and piracy, and anchor them in a cultural and political context.

See what I mean? Lawyers would hardly be interested in the wider perspective in this manner. I wonder if I should apply to the course…