Wednesday, March 28, 2007

James Burke Information Surge talk

James Burke came to Microsoft and gave this speech when I was on WinWord 2.0 (or so). It rocked my world. The whole Word team changed a bit of their focus away from adding more features and towards creating ways for people to re-order information. I just found this talk online and didn't want to risk such a treasure getting lost in the mists of time. I think you can still see the truth of this reverberating through society over the PC specifically.


Each time there was a major advance in the ability to generate, store or disseminate knowledge, it was followed by an "information surge" and with it a sudden acceleration in the level of innovation.

Thanks to information surge, each one of us in the modern world has more machine power available at a fingertip than any Roman emperor. A medieval king would have needed legions of horsemen riding for months to be able to deliver one-thousandth of the number of messages we can transmit in a few moments to the ends of the earth by phone or fax. A single CD-ROM can carry the whole of Renaissance science and philosophy.

When information surge happens, it sweeps through human society in a powerful, innovating wave that in some way changes everything everywhere. Surge brings together people and places and ideas in totally new ways. From these new relationships come new entities and new ways of living. Most important of all, information surge changes the way we think. We are experiencing a transformational surge of innovation and convergence of information technologies.

Three thousand years ago the Greek alphabet was the first truly transparent means of communication, because it could be used to express any language. But in the way left-to-right script was processed in the brain, the alphabet also triggered the analytical, step-by-step mode of thought that would give us logic. We could now cut up the universe the better to understand it. Before the alphabet, such an idea was, literally, unthinkable.

Today we stand on the threshold of another such revolution in thought. It is already happening in the most esoteric disciplines of science. Some of the most important equations in fundamental particle research, for instance, can now be attempted only because supercomputers can solve them in a few months. Before, since they would have taken more than a researcher's lifetime to complete, they could not even be attempted. Bringing this extraordinary aspect of knowledge manufacture to the service of society as a whole raises questions that will have to be answered. For example, can we accept and live with innovation that cannot be explained by the innovation machines because we do not live long enough to hear the whole explanation?

The answer to this kind of challenge may lie within the same systems that generate them, in the form of electronic agents. These surrogates are not new. Each time surge occurs (and with it, massive increases in the levels of innovation), society has delegated responsibility for handling the effects to filtering entities. After Descartes' scientific method triggered the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the avalanche of data was diverted into different management disciplines. Today there are over twenty thousand of them, from anatomy to zoomorphology.

Electronic agents will explore the treasure house of this specialist, arcane knowledge that will be made available to everybody by the next information surge, in order to find for us only what we need at the time and to translate the data into forms that are individually meaningful to each of us.

This new freedom of access to information through the networks spanning the globe will also change the social meaning of information. Up to now, the limitations of communication technology at any time gave special importance to all knowledge, irrespective of what it might have been, simply because it was inaccessible. What was not generally available was usually regarded as valuable.

The innovations produced by the few people who had access to this secret knowledge were, from time to time, let loose upon communities who had to adapt to it as best they might. Such esoteric innovation was impossible to prepare for because it was inaccessible, its effects were serendipitous. How could anyone have foreseen that Venturi's investigation of water-flow dynamics would lead to the perfume spray that would in turn make possible the carburetor?

The coming information systems will offer the chance for people to see these patterns of innovation even as they occur and to make judgments about them before their effect on society has to be accommodated. With open sources of information, technology assessment will finally be possible, unhindered by ideological half-truths. The same will be true of the process of political participation, suggesting a rapid end to the present representative system, designed for the eighteenth century and failing us today.

Institutions of many kinds will be changed or even removed by the next surge. When an American manager can, in real time, run automated factories in Argentina the way a Rome accountant says the Berlin headquarters requires, with software uplinked via a Japanese satellite from Korea, what happens to national sovereignty and the hundreds of items of domestic legislation that will then be obsolete?

This kind of networking is typical of the way in which information surge generates social complexity and, with it, diffusion of power outwards from the center. The fifteenth-century printing press broke the hegemony of Rome, gave political control to a hundred kings and princes around Europe, and brought the birth of the nation-state. The next surge will also shift power in much the same way, but at every level and in every place around the world.

(c) James Burke

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