July 31, 2008

Where is the future of knowledge?

A few weeks ago, as I was walking through the basement of my apartment building, I noticed this sitting in a corner normally used for dropping bulk garbage:

It was a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in perfect condition. Encyclopedias are not cheap, and the Britannica in particular is one of the more reputable ones. This edition was graced by many colour pictures on glossy pages, and must have cost the owner at least a thousand dollars when initially purchased.

Of course, it was from 1986. Since then, the world has changed significantly, and almost every article in those 24 volumes and several thousands of pages would be obsolete.

I remember elementary school and high school well. In elementary school, kindergarten to grade six in my home province, we used to do projects every once in a while about an animal or a country or a person. That meant going to both the school's library as well as the local municipal library, and spending hours searching through books and encyclopedias to find the information I needed. Then I would put it all together in one unified piece, load the pages into a duotang (do people still use duotangs?), and then submit it to my teacher. The research and consolidation was a lot of work, but it certainly helped me become a better writer and thinker.

I don't need to do any of this work anymore, and neither do those kids who are doing those same projects. I can see the rationale of that family that threw out their Encyclopedia set; they must have asked themselves, "will we or anyone else ever refer to this encyclopedia again?" There really is no reason to do so ever. The encyclopedia only serves an aesthetic purpose today, and offers nothing else of value.

In spite of the completely open nature of Wikipedia, it is surprisingly an extremely well managed resource. You may not get 100% accurate information every time, but what you get is usually of excellent quality regardless, even on the most obscure topics. At the same time, what guarantee do I have that Britannica was 100% accurate in it's heyday?

I originally planned on writing this when Google's Knol project first opened up to the public last week. Knol aims to distinguish itself from Wikipedia by putting more accountability on the content authors. Users are only expected to contribute "Knols" if they are authorities on their topic.

When I first started exploring Knol, there was no entry on Islam, and I thought I would contribute one lest it be scooped up by a so-called "experts" who interpret the faith according to their own whims and desires. A week later, there are no fewer than 34 articles about Islam, though many of them appear to be simple copy/pastes from Wikipedia articles or other websites. I haven't read anything particularly inflammatory yet, but Google's system here somehow seems more prone to bias and personal opinion.

I don't think Knol will catch on, mainly because the presentation is quite poor so far. Wikipedia is beautifully consistent, and makes finding the information I want much easier, whereas every Knol article appears to adopt it's own layout rules and writing style. But I'd still like to contribute some of my "expertise" somehow, but what topics (outside of twisted metaphors) can I be considered an "authority" in?

Whether Google succeeds or not, it is clear that the future of knowledge will not lie on paper. Books will always have their place, but bits of binary data flowing through the tubes of the Internet will serve as the records of our time for future historians studying life in the 21st century.

In the past, they said that "history is written by the winners." That statement is soon to be irrelevant. Going forward, history will be written by the people with flexible data plans.

July 21, 2008

A Complete Beginner's Guide to RSS

For those of you who are confused about RSS, I wrote a guide a few weeks ago for ijtema.net. Unfortunately, some bizarre technical issues were preventing me from publishing it right away, so it was significantly delayed. It's up now, so head on over and have a look for yourself.

A Complete Beginner's Guide to RSS
The most common definition of RSS is “Really Simple Syndication”. Essentially, it is a standardized way of publishing frequently updated information. Many websites with frequently updated content will publish “RSS feeds” in order to alert readers whenever new material is posted...