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.


  1. assalamualaikum,

    Hm...I agree

    Knol doesn't look that great, it seems all over the place

    "Such errors appear to be the exception rather than the rule, Nature said in Wednesday's article, which the scientific journal said was the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia to Britannica. Based on 42 articles reviewed by experts, the average scientific entry in Wikipedia contained four errors or omissions, while Britannica had three.

    Of eight "serious errors" the reviewers found — including misinterpretations of important concepts — four came from each source, the journal reported.

    "We're very pleased with the results and we're hoping it will focus people's attention on the overall level of our work, which is pretty good," said Jimmy Wales, who founded St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Wikipedia in 2001."

  2. You're right - the future of encyclopedias in not in books but in computers. After all, that's what they had in Star Trek!

  3. Nice thoughts. I heard that Bill gates already has a paperless office. With technology flourishing and eventually becoming available at affordable rates all around the world flexible data plans would be very crucial.

    Interesting blog. MashaAllah

  4. MoneysWorthless: Wikipedia is a fairly reliable resource, even on the most mundane topics. I wouldn't write a thesis using it, but for basic knowledge to sound smart in front of people, it's great.

    Nauman: Does that mean the future will also involve repeating the same episode over and over again?

    Syra: Welcome to the blog! Sorry for the lack of updates. The term "paperless office" is a bit of a buzzword that technologists have been parading for quite some time now. I don't doubt it will eventually come to pass, as the older generation retires and enterprise is replaced by those who grew up with the Internet. What makes it exciting is that the barriers of entry have been reduced; anyone with a little ingenuity and a mobile device can find a niche to leverage this new world.

  5. The evolution of knowledge involves knowledge becoming more accessible, but less reliable. Finding good sources is always getting harder.

  6. Nicely written Faraz Bhai!


  7. Asmaa: Well said!

    Aiman: Aiman, what brings you here?!

  8. Someone in our family still has a set of E.B.'s from 1976. I'd love to rifle through those pages again. They cost our family around $1500 back in the 1970s. Imagine. I suppose encyclopedia salesmen have found other careers nowadays.

  9. Open sources media and social media platforms,are the real tools right now for spreading and sharing ,even creating knowledge, I think we are about to watch a revolution in the near decades .