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The Internet & the Future of Organized Knowledge: Part I of III

[Note: we thank Professor Floridi for kind permission to reprint this material, which is a shortened version of a paper he gave at a UNESCO Conference in Paris, March 14-17, 1995.]

Part One: Understanding The Internet

The Internet: a population of several million people, interacting by means of a global network. It is the most educated intellectual community ever, a global academy constantly thinking.

Yet the Internet is also a completely new, hitherto unknown phenomenon. What is the Internet exactly? What can it be used for? And what will be the effects of such a radical revolution in the way we handle the world of information? These are the three fundamental questions that will determine the future of organized knowledge.

What The Internet Is — By the word "Internet" we refer to the international system of digital communication, emerging from the agglomerate of thousands of networks that interact through a number of common protocols worldwide. It cannot be physically perceived, or meaningfully located in space and time, over and above the set of interacting networks that constitute it. It is a collaborative initiative of services and resources, each network being accountable only for its own proper functioning.

Thus, nobody is ultimately responsible for it as a single enterprise, nobody is earning money from the service as a whole, nobody is running the system, and nobody will be able to control it in the future.

What The Internet Can Be Used For — This is not easy to determine. It isn’t that we don’t know how to use the system, but that the variety of things that one can do via Internet increases literally every single day. However, we can distinguish four rough categories of communication: email, discussion groups, remote control, and file transfer.

Thus, we can exchange private messages with a friend, publish an electronic journal, set up a "slow reading group" on Voltaire’s Candide, and access data in all possible forms: software, bibliographic records, electronic texts, images of paintings, statistical graphs, musical sounds, whole data banks on an enormous variety of subjects. Any exchange and manipulation of symbols, images and sounds is already possible on Internet, or soon will be. In the future even television will probably be remembered as just another episode of the computer age.

How The Internet Will Affect Organized Knowledge — This question is almost impossible to answer precisely. It is hard to give even an initial shape to our ignorance, since there may be much more we do not know than we could guess. After all, the Internet is already transforming some of our most fundamental conceptions and habits.

The Internet is fostering the growth of knowledge, yet at the same time it is generating unprecedented forms of ignorance. As always in the history of technology, whenever a radical change occurs, some individuals are left behind while the new technology makes those who do master it suddenly aware of other domains still to be explored.

The new model of "spineless textuality" represented by hypertext, the virtual ubiquity of documents, the appearance of online services and electronic sources that need to be catalogued, have radically changed the discipline of librarianship. Even the library itself may disappear: no longer a building, a storehouse of knowledge physically recorded on paper, the new "consulting" library will be a node in the virtual space of the digital encyclopedia, providing access to electronic information on the network. Instead of an object-oriented culture, producing multiple copies of physical books for each user, we will become a time-and-information culture, providing services charged per period of use.

Concepts of citizenship and privacy are changing too. In the new electronic marketplace of the global village, publicity has assumed an international scale, while privacy means electronic privacy in our email conversations. Our good manners are evaluated on the basis of a social "netiquette." Civil rights concern the way in which information about ourselves can be created and stored in databases, and then accessed and used through the network. Crimes range from electronic pornography to viruses, from the illegal reproduction of software to illicit intrusion into electronic systems, from infringement of copyright to electronic plagiarism.

Even the way we think may be affected. Relational and associative reasoning is nowadays becoming as important as linear and inferential analysis, while visual thinking is at least as vital as symbolic processing. And as the skill of remembering vast amounts of facts is gradually replaced by the capacity for retrieving information and discerning logical patterns in masses of data, the Renaissance conception of erudition is merging with the modern methods of information management.

Entire sectors of activity like communicating, writing, publishing and editing, advertising and selling, shopping and banking, teaching and learning are all being deeply affected. Such transformations are of the greatest importance, as they will determine our life-style in the coming decades.

We are now ready to explore what such an epochal change in our culture will mean in one special field: the future of the Human Encyclopedia.

What The Human Encyclopedia Is — The Human Encyclopedia is the store of human knowledge. It is constantly increasing, although at different rates in different ages and cultures. The rate of increase depends on two things: the quantity of information stored up until that time and the current degree of accessibility of the "memory" of the system.

The invention of printing has usually been considered a turning point in this increase, but its importance should not be misunderstood. The printed book represented a powerful new medium whereby a text could be reproduced more quickly, cheaply, and accurately, and hence be more safely stored and more widely diffused. It tremendously accelerated the recovery, conservation, and dissemination of knowledge among an increasingly large number of people. But this did very little to improve the degree to which an individual could take full advantage of the entire Encyclopedia, since the process of information retrieval remained largely unaffected by the printing of books.

Quite soon after Gutenberg, there were attempts to do for the processing of information what the printing press had done for the reproduction of knowledge (see Gulliver’s Travels). But they all failed, because such an enterprise required something much more radical than a merely mechanical solution. Only the passage from printed paper to digital data made possible a thoroughly new way of managing information, and much more efficient control over the system of knowledge. This explains why Information Technology, as the long awaited response to the invention of printing, has been much more pervasive than any previous technology. The press (mechanically) enlarged our intellectual space; only the computer has made it (electronically) manageable.

Three Steps to The Internet — Thus began in the 1950’s a process of converting the entire domain of organized knowledge into a new, digital macrocosm. This conversion has engendered three fundamental changes in how we access information: extension, visualization, and integration.

  • Extension. There has been constant growth in the kinds of information that could be digitized – not only numbers and text, but also sounds, images, and animation. The growing extent of this "binary domain" has soon required forms of access far more congenial to the mind than the merely digital, leading to…
  • Visualization. The invention and improvement of visual display units, together with the development of graphic interfaces and WIMP applications (Window, Icon, Mouse, Pop-up menu), have made possible a spectacular return of the analogical as the fundamental threshold between the binary macrocosm and the mind. Finally…
  • Integration. The translation of different kinds of information into a single language of bytes has increasingly brought together the various domains of knowledge into an ever-wider and more complex encyclopedia. This integration has subsequently grown qualitatively by the incorporation of multimedia and virtual reality. It has also grown quantitatively, as local domains have joined into an ever-wider environment of networks, tending towards a global, multimedial, and unique macrocosm of digitized knowledge. Obviously, this brings us back to…

The Internet Again — We can now see that the Internet is just the most recent form adopted by the organization of the system of knowledge, a mere stage in the endless self-regulating process through which the Human Encyclopedia constantly strives to respond to its own growth. Through the combination of the three processes of extension, integration, and visualization, the Internet has made possible management of knowledge that is faster, wider in scope, and easier to exercise than ever before.

As a stage in the life cycle of the Encyclopedia, the network has already given rise to unprecedented innovations and to new fundamental problems, some of which are especially relevant to the future of scholarship and organized knowledge. These will be explored in detail in the next parts of this article.

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