Knowledge for the Future
Bill Long 8/7/11
All of Life At Your Fingertips
In many of my preceding essays I have stressed the centrality of knowledge arrangement, availability and dissemination as a most important task for the future. My point is that the reality of the Internet has so changed the nature of learning that we must fundamentally rethink the entire process of knowledge gaining for the future. Of course, we still have to study; the nature and power of memory is still central; connections and relationships with people as we learn will never go away--but now we have the potential of all knowledge available to anyone at any time--and that simple fact makes us think of the ways that such knowledge can be arranged, presented and used. In a word, I seek a web site that not only arranges knowledge (itself a huge task--as previous essays have pointed out) but also can provide a conduit or entry point into all the questions that occupy a person at a particular time. In this essay I lay out the foundations for that site/system. It is driven by two things-the complexity of the thing one wants to learn/master and the questions that one wants to bring to the subject. Let me explain--through a picture.
The Future Dream
It might be helpful to begin with the picture of what I would like the future experience of learning to comprise. The important point is that it comprises learning of anything/everything--not just "book" learning, but learning how to get to places, how to ask someone for a date, how to repair a relationship, how to make a difficult decision in life, how to make money, how to build a boat, how to do the infinite variety of things that humans want to do. I imagine that the web site of the future would have, as its home page, just a few questions. You would come on the page and have three alternatives to click on:
1. I would like to learn something today OR
2. I am confused about something OR
3. I would like suggestions on how to spend my day...
In other words, the interface that potentially is an avenue to all learning begins with the person at the screen deciding what it is s/he wants to do. Let's bore down into one of the three to see how the idea opens up.
1. So, you decide you want to learn something. Click on it. A series of prompts will take you further or there would be a blank allowing you to type in your query. The queries or subjects could cover a variety of topics from the simple, to the moderately complex to the very complex. For example, the simple things are already in a variety of places on the Net--but they remain important to cover. How do I find a happy hour location in Seattle? How do I say "I love you" in Serbo-Croatian? How do I get from the Munich Airport to downtown most cheaply? What will be key here is that when the simple answer is given, there will be all kinds of questions for how you can take things one step further in related areas. I don't mean that "Google Ads" will pop up on how to find a Serbo-Croatian tutor in your community (though that might be there), but you will have a chance to say "I love you" in other languages, to learn other Serbo-Croatian phrases, to have a map of Serbia, to understand the troubled history of that land and region, to have photos/videos of life in Serbia, to enjoy the look (and perhaps smell?) of favorite dishes from that part of the world, of Serbian music/musicans/dance/mythology or stories etc. In other words, even if all you want is a simple answer to a very simple question, you will have the opportunity easily to launch into other areas that might also have interest for you. If you want to know happy hours in Seattle, you will not just get a map of the place, but will have opportunity to learn about the surrounding blocks--businesses, history, people, etc.
These are the easy life-managing tasks for the day. But then there are the more complex things you might want to know are these: How do I write a composition on a subject? How do I construct a good paragraph? What are some excellent literary ways to express XX idea? (you will type in the idea that you want to express. Say you would like to express your love for someone; immediately you will get 10 choices on your screen of love poems or narratives; you will type in that you want to express anger; immediately you will have the most eloquent literary expressions of anger, with full citation and insight into the person who is credited with making the statement). The ideas are endless. You may want to purchase a plant for a place in your yard that is 50% sun. You decide that a leukothoe is the plant/bush for you. You want to know how to plant and care for a leukothoe. You will get information, but you will also get a link to Ovid's Metamorphosis Book IV, where the story of Leukothoe is told. You will be linked to historical botanical classics, which tell stories of how things were named; give biographies of those who named it; give translations of classic and contemporary books that tell us more about not just the leukothoe but other plants in that family. Further links will make available to us the discussion of the family in which it is a part--to identify, in very practical ways, why this family is so identified.
Another task of moderate complexity is how to lose weight, how to get a date, how to get rid of my anger or depression, how to deal with a particularly difficult person. You just type in the particular problem you are facing and then a screen will come up asking you further questions. Let's say you have a tendency towards depression; you can't seem to get yourself out of the endless cycle of recrimination, self-abuse, despair that you feel. So, you type in that you are depressed. A series of questions comes back. Describe it. How does it manifest itself? A series of answers awaits you as you answer the questions. You are provided not simply with a road map to identify and deal with the problem you face, but along the way you can have access to classics that describe depression, stories of depression, testimonies of those who have overcome it, etc.
Then there are the truly complex and difficult issues of life. Some of them have to do with learning. How do I learn Chinese? How do I earn a doctorate in Egyptology? How do I understand the current international debt crisis? Etc. But some very complex issues have to do with seemingly insoluble issues. Why are the Democrats and Republicans so intransigently opposed to each other today? What to do to bring Palestinian/Israeli peace? Other complex issues will be illustrated and available. How do I perform surgery on XXX--you fill in the subject. There will be links to surgical demonstrations. How do I perform a colonoscopy? How does one make a XXX--you fill in the subject? How do you identify a particular tree? Let us say you only had a leaf of the tree and you would like to know what it is. Somehow you will be able to rub it across the screen and immediately you would get full knowledge of what it is you are holding.
Thus, the site I desire becomes the avenue for all learning and situations in life. If you decide to click on "I am confused," you will have a chance to describe what confuses you. If you just want to be entertained for the day, you will click on it, and up will come a variety of things, from games to play to music to listen to to activities that are possible/fun in the area where you are.
In order to do this properly one would need conferences of all kinds of people, with knowledge of so many things, who can help you see how their field can not only be represented but how it can be linked with others. The site will, thus, begin to present a truly linked source of knowledge about all aspects of living in the world. It will only be bound by our imaginations--and by the resources to design, write up and gather this information. But, then again, the power of the idea will generate interest in people.
This is the ultimate "life improvement" tool. We need to focus on its development, and work very hard at it. The possibilities are there.