Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Future of Information Management

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' corporate blog)

We are living in exciting times. We are smack-dab in the middle of a r/evolution of such magnitude that its impact will (likely) only be evident in retrospect.

Three data points have converged recently to evoke this feeling of excitement, amazement, and minor vertigo about what the future holds.

1) Information Management Technologies

In the video above (one of several fantastic presentations shared by TED), Blaise Aguera y Arcas demos some jaw-dropping technology (Photosynth) coming out of Microsoft Live Labs (based on Blaise's previous efforts with Seadragon, which was acquired by MS in '06). This image/info manipulation and organization tool is tough to describe in words, but the wide array of potential applications/uses immediately become apparent via the demo shown in the video.

Suddenly, we see the ability to enable the emergence of information that has never been explicitly defined by someone, but rather is dynamically created based on the novel analysis of large groupings of small pieces. (see the segment about Notre Dame modeled off of Flicker images)

We begin to see novel ways to leverage technology to do truly unique things, rather than using them to recreate old things in new skins. (see the embedding of micro images/print into digital versions of 'traditional' media - it reminds me of the corporations who are inserting long, detailed product information and extended stories in a momentary burst at the tailend of TV ads, viewable only by 'stepping' through them frame-by-frame using a Tivo/DVR remote, as a means to (re)capture eyeballs in the age of 'ad skipping'. For an example, view GE's One Second Theater.)

I recall reading somewhere (can't remember now) that UI beauty is born from spare MIPs - that it was only when processing/computing speeds became sufficiently fast that any substantial attention was directed towards the look & feel of applications. Thus, we had text-based OS's and app's (think DOS as a later example) well before any GUI's were an option. It seems we are experiencing another step along this path, as the power of even average PCs today far outstrip the stress the average user places on them - they (effectively) sit idle, waiting for the next command from the user 95% of the time (I made that figure up, but it's probably an underestimation, if anything). Thus, you see 'grid computing' efforts popping up to take advantage of these spare cycles (one of the older examples is the initiative). The power of 'gamer' video cards and video gaming systems (XBox, PSP, etc.) is extraordinary by measures set only a few years ago. This fact enables people like Blaise to begin to imagine new capabilities (thanks to Moore's Law... although I think that he came up with some very innovative ideas about how graphics are handled that amplified the pure computing power curve!)

2) Direct Manipulation Interfaces

In video above (again, from TED), Jeff Han demonstrates an amazing and intuitive way of manipulating information directly, rather than the long-in-the-tooth mouse/keyboard method. Again, seeing the demo in video takes the place of pages of (inadequate) descriptive text.

This is very similar (perhaps related deeply?) to the newest Microsoft announcement, Surface.

Even if they aren't related efforts, it may be an example of simulateous convergence of an idea whose time has come (like Newton and Leibniz related to Calculus). This concept of direct manipulation, coupled with widely networked and 'aware' devices (see the three videos on the Surface home page) will open up an entirely new horizon of creating/storing/sharing digital

3) New Paradigms of Information Organization

David Weinberger recently published a fascinating book, Everything is Miscellaneous. At its core, it's a book about classification/categorization and how things change when the items being cataloged are bits rather than atoms (digital rather than physical). It's about the power of metadata, tagging, and in/formal taxonomies.

This basic premise (that we are now afforded the option of describing a single thing in multiple ways, all of which are valid and useful, depending on your objectives) is the fuel behind what makes Blaise's work possible (in part). The ability to search, sort, and shuffle large storehouses of otherwise miscellaneous/random data to reveal new patterns and meaning rests in the 'information about the information'.

These three spikes in the blogosphere converged in my head today and (re)ignited my imagination of what awaits us (and our children) in the not-so-distant future.

How will these samples (along with the hundreds of other gadgets, gizmos, and tools that are popping up daily on the web) influence and impact the way we conceptualize and manage "information", "learning", and "knowledge" in the academic (K-12/16/20+) and corporate domains?

Only time will tell, but it seems clear that the possibilities are limited much more severely by our own imaginations and mental models than by the enabling technologies.

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