Al Gore came to town and gave a speech a few weeks ago to discuss the key drivers of change (and, incidentally, to sell his book on the very same subject). Perhaps the most interesting thing Mr. Gore had to say was on thermodynamics, of all things. Over time, all systems becoming increasingly disordered (think of how your clean kitchen looks only after a few days of cooking). But when enough energy is put through a system, the system does not break down as the laws of thermodynamics would predict. Instead, the system reorganizes itself. One example is the printing press. The printing press enabled folks to put ideas into words, and the audience was limited only to those who could read them, and information began to spread freely. The industrial revolution is another example, one wherein machines replaced human labor, and began to generate new jobs. As a result, there is more wealth today than at any other time in human history.
The next trend began only a few years ago with the internet. We put so much energy into the system that a whole new ordering the world is revolutionizing the very way we understand it. 90% of the data online is less than two years old. The very fact that we can find a needle in a ever-growing haystack, in just a few tenths of a second, should be the stuff of science fiction. Except that it’s real.
The data we access can be exceptionally powerful. I remember a few years ago watching a farmer in the middle of nowhere Paraguay plowing his fields with his oxen. He stopped for a second, reached in his pocket, and pulled out his cell phone to answer a call. If a poor farmer can afford to buy a cell phone, then there is not doubt that powerful new ways to communicate and to access data are not only global, but are increasingly universal.
While the internet and its wealth of knowledge is most certainly here to stay, we need to be smart about how to use it. We should not use it as a crutch; for example, instead of remembering the name of a song or the date of an important event, we can take out our smartphone and google it. Another risk is that over time the internet will become just like the kitchen or any other system obeying the laws of thermodynamics–increasingly disordered, fragmented, and harder to use. With so much data being added every second to the internet, it will be increasingly difficult to separate the signal from the noise. A final danger is that the data we are seeking is outright wrong, like when Sarah Palin supporters altered the Paul Revere WIki entry.
There’s no doubt that the internet is an incredibly powerful tool. But the internet should not be used as a crutch. And going forward, we need to make sure that the internet remains a relevant tool that not only stores information, but stores the information in a way that is readily accessible and, more importantly, presents information that is actually useful.
With more than a billion cooks in the kitchen, that could be a tall order. Having said that, yesterday’s printing press is today’s internet, and billions stand to benefit from the most comprehensive database imaginable–the collective conscience of an entire planet.