Saturday 18 July 2009

Wells & Bush on Information

Data Deluge speaks strongly to the dramatic technological changes of the past 20 years or so. But it is of course part of a longer trend over the past 100 years in which the idea that increases in material culture and technology were posing both opportunities and issues associated with a deluge of data and information.

For example, the British science fiction write H.G. Wells imagined in the late 1930’s what a 'World Brain’ would be like and what it would enable (Wells 1938). His idea was that in the future scholars would have access at their desks to the complete catalogue of the Worlds knowledge. Wells imagined that this would be enabled by photographic means - based on the idea of microfilm and microfiche. However, if one replaces talk of micro-fiche with digital data then we can see just how prescient Wells’ vision was;

”our contemporary encyclopedias are still in the coach-and-horse phase of development, rather than in the phase of the automobile and the aeroplane. These observers realize that the modern facilities of transport, radio, photographic reproduction and so forth are rendering practicable a much more fully succinct and accessible assembly of facts and ideas than was ever possible before.”

Wells was not alone, at the end of the second world war the US politician and thinker Vannevar
Bush wrote a piece for Atlantic Magazine in which he reflected on the enormous changes that science and technology had brought in (Bush 1945). He marveled at the fact that;

”There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workersconclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear . . . Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose.”

These thinkers had enormous foresight. They had begun to observe a significant change in the volume of data and information arising in general, and in scientific and technical work in particular, and realised that there were real issues raised by the deluge of information.