Monday, February 28, 2005

Information and Human Nature

Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, created a ripple when he questioned Google's dream of taking over the universe by gathering all the information in the world and creating the electronic equivalent of, in their own modest words, the mind of God. (Search on Google and God's Mind if you don't want to register with the Los Angeles Times.) However, I think Google, Gorman and his detractors are all missing an important point, and it centres around human nature.

While Gorman makes some good points in Google and God's Mind, his notion that only certain books need to be digitized - "massive databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility" - is really splitting hairs; how they're used afterward is more important, as he implies in his second piece, Revenge of the Blog People: I do not believe [Google Print] will give us anything that comes anywhere near access to the world's knowledge.

It's how the information is used afterward, how knowledge is accumulated, that's really important. I'll use another quote from Google and God's Mind to illustrate my point:
The nub of the matter lies in the distinction between information (data, facts, images, quotes and brief texts that can be used out of context) and recorded knowledge (the cumulative exposition found in scholarly and literary texts and in popular nonfiction). When it comes to information, a snippet from Page 142 might be useful. When it comes to recorded knowledge, a snippet from Page 142 must be understood in the light of pages 1 through 141 or the text was not worth writing and publishing in the first place.

Gorman says must be understood, but really it's up to the reader; if they want to draw their own conclusions from a paragraph on Page 142, that's their prerogative, and this is where my point about human nature comes in.

Morgan Jones talks about convergent and divergent thinking in The Thinker's Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving, and how humans are convergent thinkers at heart. That is, in our reading and research, we are inherently trying to tie it all up and converge on a solution or opinion, if you will; that's the way our brain works. Now, going back to Gorman's example, what the Google Print project will facilitate is the converging of an opinion based on Page 142 of that particular book, and maybe a few pages from some other books, with the reader never having read pages 1 through 141, or the preceding pages of the other books.

But that's like saying guns kill people, John. Yes, you're absolutely right, and I'm not knocking the Google Print project. I say that Google, Gorman and others are missing the responsiblity that these sorts of initiatives place on our education system. As people read fewer books cover to cover, teaching people how to think critically and research becomes all the more important. Given our convergent natures, I can see a time when kids rate their research on the number of sound bites they've skimmed (and, no doubt, how quickly they've done it as well). Educating them on proper research techniques means that they'll be able to make the best use of the most powerful tools as they're developed (like Google Print).