Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pancake People

Historically each individual has had the opportunity to become very deep in a very narrow part of existence. The farmer on an isolated piece of land in the Great Plains spent his entire life learning the fine details about the weather, soil, wildlife, growing patterns, and planting strategies that worked at a particular point of latitude and longitude. His education began as a boy between the ages of 5 and 8 years-old. If he chose to stay on the farm and carry on the family business, his experience and understanding of that point in time and space would continue until he was between 55 and 65 years-old. This type of life allowed him to become an expert with fifty or sixty years of expertise in a very specific domain of industry, geography, and time. He had the opportunity to socialize with other farmers around him and to learn from their experience as well. Like a scientist who spends all of his time in personal experimentation and works only with a tight-knit group of kindred souls, this farmer was able to master one specific domain through hard work and endurance.

Similar pockets of focused expertise existed all across the country and the world. They were characteristic of the “up by your own bootstraps” determination that was required to survive and succeed in such isolated conditions and with so little access to outside information. But as mediums for communication spread and became more accessible, the farmer was able to learn about the ideas of others around the state, the country, and the world. He began to rely on the expertise and discoveries of people far from his point in space, people he had never seen, met, nor imagined. He did not have to understand how their ideas worked. He just had to know enough to implement them effectively. Knowledge came to him embedded in new kinds of seeds, new equipment, and new farming practices that he had not created himself. He began to explore beyond his own experience of nature, work, and society. He was once an intellectual pillar standing on a particular point in space and time. He was tall, certain of his knowledge, and master to his place in the world. But the distribution of new products and the communication of new information allowed him to expand out and become more knowledgeable of the world. He was able to learn about and experiment with ideas beyond those tied to survival. He could take on hobbies and indulge his interest in machinery beyond farming. The farmer was becoming more broad and well-rounded. He was flattening out to cover more area and to rely on the expertise of others to perform his core function.

This picture of the lone farmer working to survive is similar to what has happened in all parts of society. The television and the Internet have played an important and unstoppable role in the flattening and broadening process. Since the 1950’s, society has broadened its exposure to information and thinned its specialization on one specific topic - especially concerning topics that are directly aligned with their professional and economic survival. We have created pancake people who know a little bit about everything in the world, but not a great deal about any one thing. Some individuals and groups remained dedicated to mastering their specialty. Professionals in law, medicine, engineering, philosophy, history, literature, and similar disciplines still prided themselves on their depth of thinking and their understanding of the great writings in their fields. However, the recent explosion of the World Wide Web has begun to link, summarize, critique, and repeat all knowledge. Even the islands of experts have found themselves seduced by the easy assess to vast stores of information. Even they have become information surfers. Though they may have criticized the masses of television channel surfers, they have succumbed to the same fate. The seduction of surfing across all information in any field, the ability to quickly locate and scan anything that has been written, these opportunities are too tempting to resist. But as we navigate these vast tracts of information we are just beginning to notice that the depth of our absorption, understanding, and incorporation of that information into our own ideas is becoming shallow. The intellectual classes of society are being broadened and flattened by the Internet in the same way that the television flattened the general public. Pancake intellectuals are joining the ranks of the pancake society.

From an intellectual perspective, the ability to think deeply about a subject may be attributed to the creation of the book. This abstract representation of knowledge could be patiently and painstakingly created by an author. It could be shared with millions of readers, who could spend their time working through it. Prior to its invention there was no means to collect, record, and disseminate large volumes of thought. The Internet is changing the era of the book into the era of the page. It is returning society to a time when all knowledge was limited to the size of a single piece of paper. It appears that we are not veering into a new type of information exchange, but are returning to a previous pattern.

Are we better off as pancake people?

Certainly exposing someone to a broad set of information in their early years is an advantage. It allows them to consider many options for directing their life. It opens doors that were previously closed or unimagined. But, is the shallow surfing of information the best way to conduct one’s life indefinitely? It is an effective means of discovering a new field, but not of mastering it. Sergey Brin argues that people are better off if they have access to all of the world’s information. That is certainly true. But it does not speak to the question of how a person should use that access. Being able to read the entire encyclopedia of human knowledge is a way to see the surface of a very large world. But it is not an effective method for becoming a master of any one part of that world. The expert must focus his attention on one small area for a significant amount of time. But, Nicholas Carr wonders whether it is possible to develop a mind which can both surf broadly and penetrate deeply into information. His own experience has been that broad surfing has weakened his ability to penetrate deeply. It appears to be a choice that each person must make – the wide flat pancake of familiarity, or the deep-rooted pillar of expertise.

It is encouraging that authors like Carr have the ability to see the transformation that is happening and to express it in a compelling manner that draws attention. Carr says, “I am not thinking the way I used to think.” But it is excellent that he is able to recognize that the change is happening. It is important that we in society recognize that we must choose between the pancake and the pillar of knowledge.

Ref: Carr, N. (July/August 2008). Is Google making us stupid? The

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Wired Danger Room - Virtual Worlds for Military Training

Today the Wired Danger Room Blog carried a summary of some ideas that I have been promoting on the use of virtual worlds for military training. The idea of a game on a soldier's desktop is old hat. The idea of a military virtual world that soldiers can access is relatively current. But the idea of the military creating a training service that allows any soldier or unit anywhere to access hundreds of different types of training systems and content - now that is a very big new idea. The Wired blog just begins to introduce that idea.

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Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Nicholas Carr created a firestorm around the value of IT in 2003 when he wrote the article “IT Doesn’t Matter” for the Harvard Business Review. He has a new article in The Atlantic entitled “Is Google Making us Stupid?” Google and similar tools allow us access to a lot more information than any other generation has ever had. However, the style of the information and the mental behaviors that we use to access and absorb it are very different from the way previous generations absorbed books and detailed articles. Carr suggests that are becoming accustomed to all information being delivered as small bites that can be consumed in a few minutes. As a result we are losing the mental habit and facility to sit with a long treatise on a subject and work through it over many hours or many days. He reaches back to historical examples that have had similar effects on people’s behaviors. In summary he proposes that the tools that we use to create and deliver information shape the way our brains work and that the Web fails to create the mental muscles required to deeply investigate a subject.


Web 2.0 and Mashups for Military Information

There is a very interested research paper from MITRE on the use of Web 2.0 tools and mashups for military applications. Web 2.0 usually refers to tools that allow you to collaborate with others online. Mashups are the combinations of services provided by different providers. There are a number of Google Map mashups in which people use Google’s map as the background reference for their own databases. The paper from MITRE describes tools from Yahoo, Kapow, and Google that can be used to process information. It contains an example of hunting through Flickr photos for a picture of a white van that was at a specific location at a specific time. This application ties together Yahoo Pipes with the Flickr photos database. The author goes on to describe the importance of ad hoc information processing to get inside your opponent’s OODA loop.

Ref: “Mashup the OODA Loop”, Jeffery Heier, MITRE C2C Center, New Jersey


Military Compute Cloud

Amazon Web Services offers computing, storage, and network resources for sale by compute-hour or MB of storage. There are a number of new companies built on top of these services. The companies do not buy their own hardware, but instead rent only as much as is needed from Amazon, adding or subtracting every week as necessary. DISA has picked up this idea and created a similar service for use by military organizations. For example, STRI could host our applications on their machines and test them (hopefully across the “.mil” domain) – or leave them active as permanent services. The cost of the service is $500/month for unlimited resources. Long-term, DISA sees this as a means of becoming the permanent hosting service for many applications.

NextGov article