Monday, February 05, 2007

Signposts, Filters and Aardvarks.

"If, in the future, a computer will give me access to the entire resources of the Encyclopædia Britannica, I think I will die a happy man" I said that, I remember it distinctly. It must have been twenty years ago. Prestel (it was a pre-web information system that worked a bit like teletext) was just coming in and late one memorable night I managed to download a story from that days' New York Times. I felt tremendously proud, at the vanguard of a new information age. When that age came it proved to be on a scale I could never have dreamt of. And it would also have consequences I could never have dreamt of. In reality the new age did not give everyone access to the Encyclopædia Britannica, it destroyed the Encyclopædia Britannica. It is in the process of destroying the music industry as we know it. Newspapers and magazines - at least in their present form - will not be far behind. This is not a complaint. There was nothing wonderful about the pre-download music industry and I am not sorry to see it go the way of tallow candles. All I am saying is that the so-called "information society" is in fact an "information revolution", which - like most revolutions - is beyond the day-to-day control of mankind. So what brought me to these thoughts? Three things. First, over the weekend there was much talk amongst the people I was with about information overload. e-mail inboxes that take half a day to get through, the routine circulation of reports to everyone in your address book ... this kind of thing. I have some sympathy with such moans : the information super-highway has become as clogged up as the M62 which I can see from my window. However, there is a positive side to this. For reasons best known to myself I am currently taking the dog (Amy) on a virtual walking tour of the USA. Each day we measure our mileage and plot it on Microsoft Live Search maps. Yesterday we were passing the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles which I had always fancied seeing. Now - thanks to the much maligned information super-highway - I could read about them (http://www.tarpits.org/), look at them, listen to them, and I suspect smell them if I had followed enough links. I even managed to get a wonderful tour of the museum courtesy of a video made by a member of YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ibcv_-I2Vfs). The third element is my current period of reflection about the future of my European news service. When I started it 25 years ago - information was paper-based and in relatively short supply. The value added I could provide was to summarise and point people in the right direction. Now information is abundant and the need - if a need exists - is for a signposting service. In a way this is still summarising and pointing - but of a very different nature. So, where have I got to? Information overload ? Probably. Solution - signs and filters. I am not sure at the moment whether I have the energy any more to help design the solution. Alternatively I could probably buy myself an old paper-based copy of Britannica and start out with the Aardvark.

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