Friday, October 21, 2005

All the world's knowledge in a brick

A New Yorker cartoon from between 1975 and 1985 captioned a brick with “Four hundred selections of the world’s finest orchestral music, over one thousand full-color reproductions of mankind’s greatest paintings and sculpture, and two hundred and thirty-one timeless classics of western literature compacted into a two-by-three-by-six-inch brick.”

Twenty or thirty years ago that was funny because there was no way to squeeze that much information into such a small space and, more important, no way to get it out. That left the hypothetical brick as a wondrous technological achievement without any utility.

Today we would wonder why such a brick need be so large. But even as we create technology that could put that much information and more into a postage-stamp-sized flash drive, we still face the difficulty of finding our way through vast, complex, and interrelated information. One innovative way to explore the history of innovation and science is being developed by the Knowledge Web, a project inspired and guided by James Burke, author of Connections, The Day The Universe Changed, The Axemaker’s Gift, The Pinball Effect, Twin Tracks, and (not surprisingly) The Knowledge Web.

I had visited the website a year ago, but found more promise than function. Last week I met Patrick McKercher, who self-effacingly describes himself as the janitor of the Knowledge Web, but this really means the leader of about 800 contributors. Patrick showed me behind the scenes to an interface still under development. As a fan of Burke’s Connections style (referenced in my book Technology Challenged), I was fascinated. A database of people, places, technologies, concepts, and events drove a presentation of any of those with links to many more. The web’s hyperlink was made for this manner of navigation. In seconds Patrick traversed a half-dozen connected events. He showed me what looked like Google Earth, explaining that it had been developed long before Google's recent debut of their technology, and that it showed areas of innovative activity (as Google shows roads or schools).

Yet to be developed would be the ability to hover over, say, China and then roll back the years looking for volcanoes of innovative activity. Freeze a period, perhaps when the Treasure Fleets were sailing the world (using technology like sealed bulkheads not to be found on European ships for another four centuries), and then fly around the world in that time period, looking for other hot spots. All the information from Burke’s books will be (or perhaps already is) in the database, but that leaves plenty of room for more. They are looking at the viability of wikis for spreading the net even wider.

I hope the behind the scenes magic that Patrick revealed will soon show up on the public Knowledge Web. When Patrick tells me, I will blog it.


Post a Comment

<< Home