28 Apr 2008
I honestly started this with the intention of writing about Google Analyzer, but by the time I got to the end, I realized that I was talking about something else altogether. So I apologize for any meandering or lack of structure, but at the same time hope that you enjoy it.
It seems like I’ve been spending a lot of time recently talking about information overload, if not here, then in comments and other miscellaneous places. My take on it is that the human brain is an excellent filtering device - every instant that we are conscious, we filter out a good deal of sensory information. This isn’t a bad thing, as the alternative would be paralysis due to a tidal wave of trivia, and after all, it happens on a subconscious level, so we are never even aware of it.
Why does this matter? Because, much of technology today is all about bringing us more information, not necessarily better information. Take the internet, if you break it down, it’s probably something like 75% porn, 24.9% other irrelevant crap, and .1% useful information. That we can get anything useful out of it is in itself a wonder. We are in a process, however, of increasing the amount of raw data that we have access to, mainly through things like cheap cameras and automatic recording systems (every time you purchase something with a credit card, it creates a massive paper trail, or rather, data trail, it is only a matter of time before we do that for everything). This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does stem from the way we approach technology.
Currently, if you want to solve a computational problem, you simply throw processing power at it until you solve it. Very little resources are spent trying to improve the process, only trying to ensure that Moore’s Law will continue to hold true. So how do you improve the process? I’m not precisely sure. Improving processes is something that happens in non-intuitively connected leaps, and as such is something that is difficult to focus on. What I can say, though, is that the one area that will always pan out is basic research. By this I mean research that isn’t meant to solve a specific problem, that isn’t there to create a product, stuff that simply says, “we need to know more about . . .” and goes from there. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the more basic the question, the more we will have to be creative to answer it (read the analogy of the cave a couple of times and you’ll understand). The second is that Descartes was right, from every premise comes other premises. Every time you learn something new, when you connect it to the rest of your world-view, you can learn even more.
Unfortunately, it seems that basic research is not exactly a priority. Who would have said, a hundred years ago, that man would make it to the moon only to lose interest? Why don’t we have more large colliders? The list of questions is endless. Unfortunately, it seems that our curiosity as a species has been smothered by bureaucracy and self-interest (which is another discussion altogether, I’m afraid). I am hopeful, though, that our curiosity can and will be rekindled (as the alternative is extinction). The reason that I say this is that so long as people ask “what if?”, so long as people continue to read (or otherwise experience) speculative fiction, there will always be hope.