Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Handling the cornucopia

A special report on managing information: Handling the cornucopia | The Economist

Knowledge has become so specialised that it is impossible for any individual to grasp the whole picture. A true understanding of climate change, for instance, requires a knowledge of meteorology, chemistry, economics and law, among many other things. And whereas doctors a century ago were expected to keep up with the entire field of medicine, now they would need to be familiar with about 10,000 diseases, 3,000 drugs and more than 1,000 lab tests. A study in 2004 suggested that in epidemiology alone it would take 21 hours of work a day just to stay current. And as more people around the world become more educated, the flow of knowledge will increase even further. The number of peer-reviewed scientific papers in China alone has increased 14-fold since 1990.

It is impossible to consume all the information available to make any kind of decision; now we need technologies to filter the information or even to read the information for us.

Some people are even questioning whether the scramble for ever more information is a good idea. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, identifies “information hazards” which result from disseminating information that is likely to cause harm, such as publishing the blueprint for a nuclear bomb or broadcasting news of a race riot that could provoke further violence. “It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” he writes. “It is an open question whether more knowledge is safer.” Yet similar concerns have been raised through the ages, and mostly proved overblown.

Emerging technologies like the Semantic Web and Topicmarks may only be the first attempts to replace reading from a machine with reading by a machine.

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