For the overwhelming majority of human history, access to information has been severely limited. Sometimes, this was because the authorities (secular or religious) suppressed unsanctioned ideas, but usually it was the result of simple logistics: if you couldn’t find a living expert or an authoritative book on your topic of interest, there was no other way for you to learn about it.
The 1989 film “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” illustrates this theme beautifully. The entire premise of the movie is that two high-school slackers would have no conceivable way of completing a history project the night before it’s due, unless they had a time machine. Prior to being loaned a time machine, Bill and Ted were sitting in the Circle K parking lot, asking passersby questions about the Mongol invasion of China. With the library closed, and no relevant books in their possession, they were out of options.
Although exaggerated for comic effect, this was largely the predicament that everyone was in, prior to the advent of the Information Age. Once technology made it possible to distribute data cheaply, quickly and widely, the battle cry of hackers and other activists was, “Information wants to be free.”
Today, information’s wish has been granted. It is free. While certain specific content may be hidden behind paywalls and in non-digital formats, unlimited data on virtually any topic is available instantly, on devices that most of us have with us 24/7. The stumbling block that impeded individual progress for the last 200,000+ years has been removed.
So, now what?
This step in our evolution is analogous to the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural. Where once we had to search for information, now we have it at our fingertips. The question is not, “What is it?” but “What does it mean?” The gatekeepers are gone, but so are the curators and the editors. By seeing everything, we become blinded. Or, more accurately, we are overwhelmed. When it comes to information, too much of a good thing really is too much.
This is why, with no more restrictions on our access, programmers are working hard on Artificial Intelligence built around the concept of “relevance.” Google dominates Yahoo, Bing and the other search engines because it consistently delivers results that are more relevant. Indeed, to the chagrin of SEO companies, Google’s algorithms have become so sophisticated that they essentially mimic human reasoning. Where once “keyword frequency” and other crude, quantitative techniques were used to calculate relevance, Google now uses factors such as “direct traffic” (typing a website name into an address bar, rather than searching for it at all). Why? Because that’s how people work: if you know what you want, and you know where to find it, you’ve made the relevance decision already. And, in Google’s mind, other humans might agree with you.
The challenge inherent in our new AI curators is that they are enormously powerful. Simply by tweaking the search results served to users looking for information on which to make a decision, Google can influence public opinion. While we no longer have Girolamo Savonarola making a bonfire of everything he finds distasteful, we now have Skynet ensuring that anything it doesn’t want us to find will be buried under a mountain of other data.
Interestingly, this increasing reliance on AI to process unfathomable amounts of information brings us full circle: the best way to learn about something is, once again, to find a living expert or an authoritative book.
And, if you can’t, there’s always the Circle K parking lot.