Monday, January 16, 2012

The Information Flood

Twitter, Facebook, Google+. Information now comes to us as a faucet. If you don't drink it all it disappears forever. Try to find status updates and tweets from even a few days ago. Many of you wouldn't have seen this blog post if you didn't catch it on Twitter or Google+.

I try to keep my faucet turned relatively low. I still like RSS feeds like Google Reader. Stuff stays until you discard it. I try not to have too many Twitter followers or Facebook friends.

But the trend is for people, especially the younger generations, to subscribe to whatever fills their fancy. They get a continual stream of information and ignore what they don't see. So Google and Facebook develop algorithms based heavily on what the crowds and your friends are looking at, to determine the order of what you see. Twitter will surely have to follow. Google even tries to decide which of my emails are important.

As goes the Internet goes so does academic knowledge. How do we cut through the research clutter? Will we have algorithms and the crowds tell us which research papers to look at? That used to be the job of journal editors, conference program committees and my grad students.


  1. No, indeed I would not have read this if I hadn't seen it in G+. Typically I would have seen it first as a tweet, but I happened to be looking in G+.

    The questions you're asking about are exactly what is roiling academic publishing today. That and the search for long-term sustainable business models for a more open academic knowledge infrastructure.

  2. I am one of those `younger generations' people, and I do think that many of us skim large amounts of information from many sources on a daily basis. I would have read this blog post if it weren't on Twitter because I also check the ToC Blog Aggregator daily :)

    I think we already have algorithms telling us which papers to look at: Google Scholar is my first choice for finding papers. Maybe I am in the minority, but for those of us that grew up with search engines, it is a natural choice.

  3. I'm wondering if "social" algorithms are actually needed. Instead the human factor seems a nice "algorithm" in that I often see good content re-surfacing, not just on different channels (fb, twitter, g+), but on the same channel from many people. Of course, this requires effort on my side to tender to my sources. Twitter I find the hardest tool to use but at the same time the most rewarding.

  4. I once looked up how many articles on quantum measurement theory John von Neumann had to read, back in the 1930s, to stay abreast of theoretical developments. The answer was (roughly) one article per month. Lucky von Neumann, many mathematicians and physicists nowadays would say!

    Nowadays that rate has accelerated to (roughly) several articles per day. So we should all know much more than von Neumann, right?

    Of course, the challenges of biology (for example) are stupendously greater even than in mathematics and physics. Then Human Genome Project accelerated the pace of pace of gene sequencing, relative to hypothesis-driven benchtop experiments, by a factor of (roughly) one million; thus was genetics irreversibly transformed into genomics.

    Subsequently the pace of gene sequencing has accelerated by another factor of one million — to the point that desktop whole-genome sequencers are now readily available. Moreover, comparable (million-fold)^2 advances in comprehensive capabilities for molecular simulation/observation are in the near-term offing — unstoppably so, because all of these advances are vigorously leveraging one-another, scientifically and technically and economically and socially.

    So how do we humans swim in this flood? To my mind, our best assets are our shared assets: (1) naturality, (2) narrative, and (2) transparency.

    But what will naturality, narrative, and transparency mean in our expanded/accelerated/globalized 21st century culture? That is a very interesting question, to which it is dismaying tough to write an answer that is realistic, and optimistic, and short.

  5. As a followup, the recently-announced desktop-size, 8-hour cycle, personal genome sequencer by Life Technologies (motto: "Like the Human Genome Project, but ten thousand times faster and one million times cheaper") includes … what else? an iPhone dock.

    This science-for-citizens technology (in alliance with emerging parallel technologies in dynamical simulation and structural observation) doubtless will drive future directions in computer science and engineering as vigorously — and as unpredictably — as did the personal computer, the internet, and the advent of global search engines.

    What direction is that? Students (especially) have to think about that for themselves.