When I was in elementary school my parents purchased the 1992 version of the World Book Encyclopedia from a door-to-door salesman. It was expensive (around $1,000), but definitely a great investment. I used the encyclopedia all the time for cursory research – and also (despite the negative school-yard stigma) I would occasionally pick up a volume and read through it cover-to-cover.

It was amazing to me to be able to sit there in our living room and look at all of the knowledge in the world sitting before me in 22 neat volumes. It was definitely a lot of material, but it was manageable enough, even for me at age 8, to open a volume and just start reading.

With the proliferation of digital technology and the emergence of Wikipedia, the way we access this sort of information has fundamentally shifted. We’ve traded in the 22 neat volumes for 3.2MM articles and 19.5MM pages of information.

I think Wikipedia is great – and there are many obvious benefits of having such a robust deposit of information available to everyone for free. However, with such suffocating volume comes drawbacks as well. It may be the best reference source that has ever been created –but I certainly doubt we will see any 8 year olds trying to read through it cover-to-cover.

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Encyclopedias
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  • Well, why should they?

    The amount of information the human race is recording is increasing expoentially, to the tune that – and I believe that this is still true – we are recording more information every year than the sum of all years previously.

    It is also true that the *need* to actually hold information in one’s head is much reduced, and will likely continue to be reduced in the future. Not only is access technology being continually refined – not only are iPhones and other smartphones popularizing “everywhere” information access, but consider the impact of “personalization” such as in Google Reader, which will happily rank blog *entries* in the order it thinks you will prefer, can suggest other entries you might find interesting, and …. oh, let’s not forget that *by default* Google not modified its search results based upon your individual search history.

    Personalized prioritized information access (and let’s not ignore “summary” information based on entity extraction and the like, e.g. the Powerset tech integrated into Microsoft Bing), plus anywhere information access, seems to make entirely redundant the need for having the information in one’s brain.

    After all, memory is quite limited. Information is not only difficult to encode, but it “fades away” over time (even if it’s never quite forgotten).

    Instead, we need the ability to evaluate the quality of the information we *do* come across – know how good it is[(which, *cough*, is what my major is designed for ;-)].

    Also don’t discount the benefit of addition visualization techniques – consider navigating Wikiepdia via this (http://www.dotnetsolutions.co.uk/successes/wikiexplorer/) or this (http://www.powerpivot.com/). (Examples just off the top of my head – I’m sure there are more/better, and Wikipedia itself has a decent “related” link set).

  • Whoops, second link is wrong: http://www.getpivot.com/

    PowerPivot is cool, but unrelated ;-)

  • Alex

    Do you still have a compulsion to catalog information? Or was that just a phase? I certainly never grew out of it.

    Seems ironic that my friends who are editors are struggling to find work, but I agree that what Wikipedia (and the web in general) lacks is competent editing. Fortunately, the World Book had that in spades. Perhaps editing is a boom just waiting to happen.

    Kids, keep getting those English degrees. There is enough work for you to last many lifetimes. If only we could pay editors like firemen or public school teachers – out of taxes. I would pony up an extra percent or two if I didn’t have to deal with such poor writing on the web.