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The information revolution

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. The information revolution. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, July:14–16.

Among its many other properties, history is a list of the changes in technology that changed the world. From the discovery of fire to the invention of steam-powered machines, from the first written language to the reinvention (by Guttenberg, of a Chinese invention) of the printing press, mankind's urge to use tools and create new ones has continually changed our lives, though not always for the better. Although the 20th century has been dubbed "the age of the atom" by some essayists, I suspect that it may be better remembered by posterity for the development of computers.

Research in the various fields of science has exploded since it became a socially respectable thing for students to become scientists. As a case in point, consider the number of publications that are produced each year in forestry alone: Forestry Abstracts listed a total of 1840 forestry publications in 1945, a total that grew to 7150 in 1985. This represents a four-fold increase in only 40 years. If a forester wished to remain up-to-date in his field by reading all journal articles that occurred in a given year, he would have spent 115 days per year doing so in 1945 (this assumes 30 minutes to read fully and to understand each article, and 8 hours per day of reading... please pardon any calculation errors and simplifications, but I'm doing this in my head). Today, the same feat would require nearly 450 days of reading... or a mere 225 days for someone who could read twice as fast as the average. You can see why most foresters are content to read only those papers that concern them directly (others, at best, try to skim the abstracts... a chore that would take nearly 120 hours by itself in 1988 if we assume a rate of one abstract per minute). If the rate of published research continues to increase at this rate, by 2025 even the most-diligent forester will become increasingly out of touch with the rest of their field.

There are several consequences to this. For one thing, the average training period for a student in a scientific field will increase, from 4 years (at present, the average time for an undergraduate degree) to at least 5 years. For another, the ability to be a generalist will inevitably vanish, which will lead to ever-greater specialization of knowledge. We'll end up with increasing numbers of over-educated specialists who cannot communicate effectively with other specialists because they simply won't share the same language anymore. (For the same reason, I'd have great difficulty teaching most of you even the small bit I know about Einstein's theory of relativity... we don't share the mathematical language. And despite a few years of university-level mathematics, I feel increasingly at a loss to understand even the layman's explanation of some modern, more obscure, fields of physics.)

I can see one of two possibilities occurring (again, permit me to simplify to avoid turning a small essay into a book): either we will become a society of specialists, in which progress begins to grind to a halt (since scientific progress requires, to some extent, the ability to integrate information from different fields of endeavor), or we will be forced to develop entirely new methods of organizing and retrieving information.

The former case implies that a specialty will develop that is not a specialty: that is, that a job that I shall call integrator will become common. An integrator will be a generalist whose specialty is understanding how to combine knowledge from disparate areas of learning and to communicate this knowledge to otherwise intellectually isolated specialists. An idea of how difficult a job this will be comes from my "to read" pile at home. This is a stack of books that I have purchased at various times, covering subjects from religion to history to nuclear physics: this is a sample of the somewhat broad range of topics which I am interested in, and which I hope will make me a bit of a generalist. This pile of books traditionally averaged a few inches high (two or three volumes); in recent years, the stack has become two two foot-high stacks squeezed into a formerly open space in my bookshelves. I'm running about a year behind on my reading, conservatively speaking, and I don't expect to catch up in the near future. Thus, for the integrator to survive in the years to come, the job of integration will have to become a full-time profession, probably accredited as a post-graduate university degree. On the down side, I don't see this happening. (That is, I haven't seen any advertised posts for integrators in any major newspaper's careers section. As an aside, it's worthwhile to occasionally pick up the Toronto Star and cruise through the careers section. You'd be surprised by some of the things you'll find. But, alas, no jobs for integrators.)

On the up side, there is evidence that wholly new methods of information storage and retrieval are becoming available... the sort of tools that amateur integrators such as myself will need to survive in the information society that has come upon us. One of these is the CD-ROM; the other has been called hypermedia. To be brief: a CD-ROM is what is known commonly as a "compact disk", and in addition to storing music in remarkably clear form, a CD-ROM can store immense amounts of data. How immense? Picture the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica stored on one or two compact disks. This sort of storage device will require efficient indexing and data-retrieval capabilities, which is where hypermedia comes into the picture. Hypermedia is a concept that dates back to the 1960s, and involves what has been called "nonsequential referencing". To explain this simply, consider a modern book: sequential referencing would be the equivalent of flipping through the book, page by page, until you came to the topic you wanted to find; nonsequential referencing would be the equivalent of having an infinite number of cross-references so that you could find any topic simply by specifying that topic and pressing a button (voila! the book opens to the page you were seeking).

An impressive example of hypermedia at work is the sort of thing that has become available for the Apple Macintosh personal computer. One commercial example of hypermedia is a computer display that deals with the development of ships, from ancient sailing ships up to the time of the first steamships. The computer will, if not told otherwise, run you through the display as if you were reading a textbook a page at a time. What is different is that by selecting pictures, technical terms, dates, and other items from within the text, you can branch to other pages of information on the selected item a the touch of a button. For instance, pointing at a portion of the diagram of a ship, the name of the part you have pointed at will be identified and you will be given the option to branch to a description of the item's function, its inventors, the date it became a common feature, and historical information on the importance of its introduction. This sort of cross-referencing and browsing is the sort of thing that we need to make sense of the information explosion.

The problem is that nobody is offering courses in how to prepare hypermedia, nor are there a large number of jobs available for hypermedia authors. As we begin to come up against the limits imposed by the volume of existing knowledge, we will eventually be forced to place more importance on managing our information explosion. One can only hope that Canada jumps on the bandwagon before anyone else and exploits this wave of the future.

[A look back from 2005: I'm delighted by how naive this essay now sounds, despite the fact that it was cutting-edge stuff that surprised many of my readers when it was first published. Clearly, hypermedia has exploded, both in terms of the Web and the CD-ROM encyclopedias that have largely been replaced by DVDs, and the explosion is only accelerating, what with blogs and wikis taking root everywhere.—GH]

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