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Less Is More

Less Is More

SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - There seems to be more and more information about smaller and smaller things. This is especially true in the social sciences - that vast, sprawling landscape comprised of anthropology, economics, political science, psychology and sociology, as well as professional schools of education, social work, business and the health sciences.

A good example of information overload is the 50 percent increase in the number of academic journals that were published between 1970 and 1990. In biology, English and psychology, journal space nearly doubled from 1972 to 1988, while the number of faculty members increased only slightly. In the area of history alone, scholars can now read more than 5,000 journals.

Given this information explosion in the social sciences, the path to getting ahead - or just keeping up - is through increased specialization: reading, researching and writing more about less. In Technologies of Knowing, Canadian professor John Willinsky explores this information epidemic in the social sciences and suggests an Internet-based system as one possible solution.

Willinsky, Pacific Press professor of literacy and technology at the University of British Columbia, argues that social sciences have failed to offer knowledge with public value. The information explosion and electronic networks have spawned volumes of undigested knowledge yet inspired few solutions for the productive use of this information.

Information production has not been matched by "an equal application of talent and energy to rendering the resulting knowledge intelligible and accessible to a broader public." The result is information that often leads to greater confusion rather than greater wisdom.

The same argument about information overload can be made for many academic areas, but Willinsky suggests the social sciences have the greatest public appeal and relevance. He argues that the social sciences can play a crucial role in democratic debate in a free marketplace of ideas. But so far, this marketplace has more resembled "an endless and overloaded flea market, full of wondrous goods" with "few apparent organizing principles governing what turns up."

Certainly, Willinsky is not the first to make these observations. What sets Technologies of Knowing apart from many other books, however, is its movement from cultural criticism to an ambitious Internet-based social engineering plan with the rather audacious goal of putting social sciences to work for the public interest. The plan involves the creation of a fictitious entity called Automata Data, a type of metacommunity Web site that utilizes such Internet technologies as relational databases, data mining and collaborative filtering to accomplish its goals. The entity would "assume responsibility for bringing greater coherence and coordination, intelligibility and access to the research and scholarship traditionally associated with the social sciences."

Willinsky finds a number of historical and contemporary models for Automata Data. For example, England's famous Royal Society in the 1600s was based on Francis Bacon's call for a New Atlantis. And, American universities were originally founded as social contracts for the public good.

Some contemporary models for Automata Data are the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Academy of Sciences, the Social Science Research Council, the Educational Testing Service, the Rand Corp. and the "Valley of the Shadow" Web site, which was created by University of Virginia history professor Edward Ayers (jefferson.village.virginia.edu/vshadow2).

On the surface, Technologies of Knowing is a criticism of the shattered state of knowledge in the social sciences. But lurking in the book's subtext is the Internet and the information paradox associated with it.

On the one hand, the Net has become history's greatest producer of information, growing each day by roughly 1 million electronic pages, and many more millions of e-mail messages held together by more than a billion annotated hyperlink connections. On the other hand, it also promises to become the greatest reducer and connector of information in history.

So far, the production side of this paradox has dominated the reduction and connection side. In a segmented economic culture like the current one (as opposed to a mass economy like the old one) profit centers around growth and differentiation rather than reduction and connection.

What would happen, though, if a profit incentive was based on the number of connections made rather than the degree of differentiation achieved? What if research in the social sciences was based on incentives to reduce redundancy and to write less about more?

It's becoming clear that Internet technology can power the engine of information reduction. "Smart" agents and "infomediaries" are emerging to filter and reduce information. And promising new search engine technologies, such as IBM's Clever Project and Stanford's Google system, are attempting to eliminate information redundancy by classifying the Internet into "hub" links and "authority" links.

As members of the Clever Project like to say, the Internet's rapid, chaotic growth has resulted in a network of information that lacks organization and structure, a "global mess of previously unimagined proportions." Technology like the Clever Project and Google are taking the first stabs at cleaning up the "mess" through information connection and reduction.

More than offering a prescription, Willinsky's real goal is to stir up debate.

As such, Technologies of Knowing offers a starting point from which to rethink our understanding of information overload. The author has also begun to practice what he preaches by establishing a Web site (pkp.bctf.bc.ca) that may ultimately develop into a type of Automata Data.

While his message is directed primarily the academic world, those who really have the power to make his ideas a reality are the young entrepreneurs who toil in the "garages" of Silicon Valley. They can continue to cash out in a gold rush of IPOs and dot-com business plans, or they just might be motivated to build nonfictional Automata Data that create more from less.

John Fraim is president of the GreatHouse Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif.


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