Sunday, 29 May 2011

The information explosion and unemployment

Even before the Internet the volume of knowledge generated by humankind was growing exponentially and in the West this has been happening since the Renaissance. The Internet (and its associated software, such as the World Wide Web) is one product of the spirit of enquiry and innovation which has driven this growth.

In fact the Internet actually accelerates growth by allowing academics and innovators worldwide to exchange data and ideas, leading to the cross fertilisations and fusions which breed new knowledge.

 The Internet has not only led to greater quantities of information and better access to it.. Applications such as Wikipedia  have also proved a powerful way of refining and updating knowledge.

Off-setting this beneficial use of computers, packet switching and data networks, has been the swamping of online users with more information than they can possibly digest.  Doctors, lawyers, academics, engineers, researchers, civil servants, lawyers, adminstrators, accountants, executives and managers can all be so overloaded with emails, reports, patents, articles and books that they cannot develop the insight, judgement and human interaction needed to do their core work.

Home based surfers like me also have to look through a lot of Google output to get to what they want, all the time being distracted by pop up notices inviting us to buy, run, install, download, update, sign up, change browsers or respond to a survey. Computer crashing and frustratingly slow responses are, in my experience, becoming increasingly frequent, even as the hardware evolves, as anti-virus scans, hastily developed software and at least apparent overloading of channel capacity with junk and trivia grow ever more common.

Could this problem of information overload be turned into a partial solution to unemployment?

Computers with clever programming by clever people, are good at shunting data around, slicing it up, mining it and putting it into boxes. But to allow us to make real use of information perhaps we need people able to focus human judgement and imaginative insight onto the data streams and knit them into shape. The human brain working in conjunction with search engines such as Google (itself a product of the brain)  should be able to filter down and rationalise the stream of search results directed at the user. Organisations such as Google could employ home-based, articulate people to do this in response to certain frequently occurring searches– one might call them knowledge workers. Lots of them would be needed.

Companies and institutions could  also employ professional knowledge workers, many of them working full time on site,  to provide academics, scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, administrators and finance workers with something more useful than reams of raw information or bibliographic references. Knowing the needs of their clients they could sift, prioritise and pre-digest the output of search engines and compile tailored reports.

I am vaguely aware that some moves along these lines are already happening but there is not yet much evidence of it.

Overall, the idea is to provide islands of insight and structured information in an ocean of data. This could give us all more time to think and would create purposeful employment for many. And if IT growth could be more measured and made to give us a better user experience, all the better.

 Is anybody listening?


Author 2077 AD