Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Age of Information

It is an interesting irony that we who live in "the information age" can only ever hope to read a tiny fraction of all the information that is available to us.

Two hundred years ago a reasonably well-educated and well-off individual could expect to be able to read a significant fraction of all that had ever been written. Today the sheer volume of data that is pouring into humanity's collective knowledge-base means that most (in fact, all) of us can never know all there is to know.

But what if we didn't even aspire to the lofty goal of omniscience? What if we just wanted to be reasonably well-informed about events in a number of spheres that are of interest to us? From this point of view I feel both guilty and spoilt. I have neither the time nor the inclination to read kilobytes of text every day, by necessity I have to rely on many of the same crutches, composites and digests as everyone else.

I usually manage to read about two full-newspapers every week. These are usually The Guardian, The Independent, or The Times (and occasionally the business section of The Daily Telegraph). Call that forty articles a week of an average of one thousand words each. Forty thousand words! Additionally to this I browse Boing Boing, Slate, AlterNet, CybDem, Charles Stross' blog, Sp!ked and any interesting articles I find linked to these.

I think I read about eighty thousand words of new text (that which I haven't read before) every week, and this is just to keep up with the news.

One of the long term goals of transhumanism should be to develop an interface between our minds and external events. We already have one of these, of course, but a a human sensorium is limited to what it has evolved specifically to accomplish: survival.

In order to flourish in a posthuman world we will have to find a way of conveying large quantities of information in a meaningful way without damaging or irritating ourselves.

I love graphs. I love diagrams. A picture is said to speak a thousand words, and I found my understanding of linear maths was greatly enhanced once I'd worked out the relationship between the graphs and the functions.

More than graphs, I love new ways of understanding something. An insight into political thought can be found at the Political Compass, for interesting ways of viewing data look at this site and this site. One displays a variety of information displays, the other shows the network of relationships between philosophers on Wikipedia.

An interesting recent development in this area is this fascinating project, where the essential characteristics of things like golf-club swings or running-styles, things that are difficult to express in words or diagrams, are rendered into sound. From www.sfgate.com:

" Using a complex formula that involved hooking professional golfers up to sensors, Berger set to vowel sounds -- ah, eh and oo -- the velocity of the club head and the relative rotation of the shoulders with respect to the hips. Amateur golfers, attached to a computer, can get instant auditory feedback on their swings with vowel sounds and can make adjustments until it "sounds just right." "

This reminds me of the control-system of a spacecraft in Shismatrix by Bruce Sterling, where the internal sensory grid of the spacecraft is attached to a music synthesiser. The crew become so attuned to the natural rhythm of the ship that they can immediately tell when something is wrong.

The downsides to modern communications technology are well thrashed out - particularly in this old article about the perils of not-quite-getting-the-whole-transhumanism thing.

The kind of technique being implemented by Professor Berger has enormous potential for education. I imagine there will be tremendous developments in the future as we discover the precise relationships between our brains and how we learn. We will be able to alter our educational methods to suit individuals, so everyone will be able to learn more easily.

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