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?


Whether it's better to be right or to be relevant?

An interesting statement was made here in a discussion on the attribution of photographers.

“who told me” becomes more important than “who made it”. Sandra Snan

The whole interesting back-story to this discussion, and the quote was passed on to me by Kristina Alexanderson (Yes, she of Stormtrooper fame) and the words have stuck. Have we come to this? Is it really more important to source things by the person who spreads information than the creator?

Certain libraries, archives and art museums have certainly been in this position (where the collection is more than the individual creators) for some time. But this is a question of collecting and aggregating. Does it really apply to the fast moving flows of information online.

One of the truisms of the digital age is that we have moved from an era of information scarcity to an age of information surplus. What does this mean?
Take the example of Television. It has evolved from a limited number of channels to more channels than most can follow, in addition to view-on-demand services and a whole pile of online viewing options. The content on YouTube alone is mindboggling: 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute (http://www.youtube.com/t/press_statistics).

This change in access to culture changes the ways in which we relate to, and consume cultural expressions. We can longer, alone or with the help of others, maintain any form of useful overview over the content. This situation is aggravated by the huge number of alternative sources of material (other video sources), in addition to the large number of other sources (texts, still images).

With two many creators vying for our time and attention the role of the information organizer becomes more interesting.

The increase in information has also created a challenge to many “scientific truths”. Not a day goes by without the media reporting from several scientific studies proving one thing or another. With alarming regularity these scientists are contradicting each other.

Actually in many cases they are not really contradicting each other but much of the nuance and understanding is lost between the laboratories to the media. Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science is a good place to begin to explore this.

So if we are drowning in information, without the tools or the time to carry out rigorous background checks the question must change. If faced with a choice between Truth and Relevance. The answer used to be truth, but today its relevance. This is particularly true in the shift from blogging to microblogging. In blogging we followed the source, the producer of information. In Twitter we follow the people who point at the most interesting things.

What will this mean for academics, libraries, archives and society in general might be interesting to think more deeply about.

How few is too few?

This is not really about the grains of wheat in the sorites paradox

Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap.

No this is a very practical question: Some time ago I agreed to give a guest lecture. At some point the course convener mentioned in passing that there were not many in the course. Today I received an email saying that the “group” would be as few as 3-4 undergrads. So as I sit drinking late night coffee, ignoring other pressing deadlines the question arises – exactly how few is too few students?

Naturally I threw myself on the wisdom of others and via twitter and facebook was informed of horror stories and depressed lecturers – as well as appeals to duty, a Latin quote (Tres faciunt collegium), social etiquette and the value of the few students who actually do show up. The latter included the quote “History is made up of those who show up” and a inspiring link to the tale of the Sex Pistols first gig.

Naturally, among the ones who do show up may be the amazing rare gem who inspires me and changes the world. Unfortunately years of lecturing show these are incredibly long odds and I probably would be better of playing the lottery.

So knowing this, why am I in the kitchen drinking late night coffee and warming up my slides by writing this post? I wish I knew. Some sort of protestant (actually atheist) work ethic – the show must go on.

At least two of the comments mentioned leaving the lecture hall depressed. From experience I am pretty sure this will be the personal result of lecturing to the empty(ish) hall. But then again this would probably fit nicely in with the protestant ethic (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).

Actually the best suggestion was not to cancel the lecture but turn it into a discussion. This is appealing except that since this is a basic theoretical lecture it will be just a lecture given sitting around a table in the cafeteria. Nice, but still depressing.

So back to the sorites paradox. If you remove one student from a lecture audience it’s still an audience. How many students must you remove for it no longer to be a valid audience?

Random Knowledge

Just found a great way of learning something new in a random way.

Go to “wikipedia.” Hit “random” (or click http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Random) This is what I got:

G?o Qípeì (???) (1660-1734) was born in Jiangxi to a family with Manchurian connections. He had success as an official in southern China, but is best known today as a painter. He initially gained reputation as an artist who did landscapes and figures in traditional style. By age twenty he became known as an eccentric who preferred using his fingers instead of a brush. This style had precedents as Zhang Zhao also preferred finger painting, but G?o Qípeì went further. He grew his fingernails long to make them more effect instruments and used his entire hand to create a highly individualized style. (wikipedia)

Cool! Interesting guy and a fun way to discover something new.