Friday, December 10, 2010

The Circuitous Route : Slice Two

Continuing the meaty bits (or the stale bread bits) of my recent talk, "The Circuitous Route : Chance, Information and Geography".....

The most important change by far to have taken place during my lifetime is the coming of the "Information Age". The ability to store and distribute almost limitless quantities of information has touched every aspect of our economic, social and personal lives. When I was young, my "information dream" was to own and be surrounded by a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and now such a dream sounds childish. The half a million topics covered by the Britannica are dwarfed by the trillions of references instantly available on the Internet. But this state of information plenty comes at a cost as the problems related to a shortage of information are replaced by the problems associated with a surfeit of information. So how can we cope in a world where simply Googling  "Cabbage Soup" brings up 1,690,000 results? I would suggest that there are three possible strategies for coping with information overload.

Let's call the first strategy the "Macro Approach" or the "WikiWorld Approach". In this strategy you cope with information excess by picking out "the best of", or the most relevant, or even the worst of. You boil the raw information liquid and distill out those elements that are seen as the most important or noteworthy. There is nothing wrong with such a strategy, indeed it is an essential approach that can quickly and effectively provide us with an overview of whatever we may want to know. Thus one easy way of understanding West Yorkshire is to actually go to the Wikipedia reference and you will quickly get an overall impression of what the area is like. 

Let us call the second strategy the "Micro Approach". Again this is a more than valid approach to information excess and an approach that has provided us with some of the most important benefits of the "Information Age" In this approach we use a microscope rather than a wide-angle lens and we focus down on detail. Google Street Cam allows us to travel down most of the highways and byways of the developed world and sites like Geograph encourage people to contribute to a growing database of distinctly local information. Blogging has made a significant contribution to this micro approach and there are many excellent blogs which enrich our knowledge and understanding of local areas and issues.

A third strategy, I would suggest, is chance or randomness and it is this approach that particularly interests me. Letting chance be your satnav when navigating the Internet has several advantages. It potentially shows you things you might not see otherwise, it rids you of preconceived assumptions, and it can help you to identify connections that are not otherwise obvious. There used to be a site called "Mystery Google" which is sadly no longer available. The idea was that whatever search term you typed into the search engine you would be presented with the results of someone else's search (if you searched for "cabbage soup" you would get a list of results for a search, for example, for "watering cans"). There is something which instinctively appeals to me about such an approach because in turns the potentially stale process of information gathering into an adventure. 

And it was therefore chance that was to be the main driving force behind my investigation of my native county of West Yorkshire. And with that I was able to move on to the second square my random number generator sent me to : Thimble Stones on the top of Ilkley Moor.


  1. For me,The 3rd Option is indeed the dynamic one.
    The first couple of options [roughly] work on the assumption that everything is known already,wereas the 3rd-Way makes you,the searcher, part of the process+Part of "the answer".Methinks the very act of searching changes the outcome.

  2. Tony : I agree and I like the idea of the very act of searching changing the outcome of the search.

  3. I know, I always get that pesky watering can whenever I look for a descent cabbage soup recipe.

  4. I agree and I like the idea of the very act of searching changing the outcome of the search.

    Otherwise known as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle - we change the event by the very act of observation. So now we're dipping into quantum mechanics! This gets more interesting by the day. Good work, Alan!

  5. @Roy: "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle - we change the event by the very act of observation." Sounds like Hunter Thompson...

    @Alan: Gee, you rilly write good. (Goodly?) Anyway, this is getting more and more betterer. :)

  6. When I was studying for a MSc in Information Science, the question of information overload came up again and again. We had a high old time, developing strategies for dealing with it. Due to the rapidly evolving nature of information delivery, my conclusion would be, resistance is futile.

    One of lecturers told us of the head of a multi-national, he had done some consultancy work for. This guy had two email addresses. One, for confidential business, which received his immediate attention, and one that automatically deleted all incoming mail.

    When a middle-manager, frustrated at not receiving a reply to his many emails, personally brought this to the attention of his boss, he was told, "if it's that important, people will come and talk to me...and here you are."

  7. Who the hell eats cabbage soup! My father hated the internet. He was no troglodyte but simply thought it provided too much information. Must admit, some of my creative writing searches have revealed an underbelly that I just didn't know existed. Still, when it's not available, I go spare.

  8. Baino : "Who eats cabbage soup?" - Why the person who is searching for a decent watering can of course.
    Martin : Love the story
    Tess : You could serve the soup from the watering can.
    Roy : I'm uncertain how to respond to your comments.
    Silver Fox. Thank ewe

  9. Erm... I was just wondering... and, yes, I do realise that the weather has imposed certain restrictions ...but, you know, I was just curious about whether... maybe, perhaps, you might be planning to finish the last two squares soon :) Pleeeeease!

  10. We have some television commercials for Bing search engine that poke fun at the randomness you get when searching on the internet. Do you have those? They are quite funny.

  11. Good approach. I find strategy 3 fraught with peril though. For me at least, there would have to be a clause to keep me from succumbing to the segue ways. I start out looking for one thing, find something related that must be investigated right away, and before I know it I have spent hours wandering aimlessly on the internet.

  12. " rids you of preconceived assumptions, and it can help you to identify connections that are not otherwise obvious." <<-- This is so me and loving this option. I'd rather do or go about something "differently" than what the norm is, as I most often like the discoveries of it all! :)

  13. Yes, i so agree that the random /chance approach works so well. Through it I no doubt came across your blog the first place.

    I really like your speech thus far, btw. So true about the different approaches to info gathering. I think Alan you were born for such a time as this. you love this stuff. Do you ever wish you were a good 40 years younger or something so you can see where this whole cyber gathering highway will take us?

  14. BTW, I do remember that google search feature. Loved that. Didn't realise it was gone actually. That is how fast the world is going by us. :)


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