Sep 4

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

What comes after the information age

Most people reading this blog occupy some place in the "information economy," and many worry whether they can maintain that place during a period of dizzying change. I've been dealing with information-economy stress by looking at the differences between the professional books I'm used to editing and the wide range of free documentation one finds online; we're coming up on the fourth anniversary of my first article on the topic.

Two distinct types of learning have emerged from my observations of how people use documentation. If you already know a utility or language and simply want to add a function, you can usually find the essential information online. A short example with some explanation of context usually suffices.

On the other hand, if you want to learn a new tool or language from scratch, you need a more comprehensive guide that's probably more professionally written. You can no longer tuck a new feature into your existing ways of thinking; you need to make a paradigm shift.

What trips up many computer users is that they don't realize how often this kind of paradigm shift is required when using familiar tools a new way. Paradigm shifts are frequently beneficial when scaling up, for instance.

In the article I mentioned earlier, I identified two areas that require a comprehensive way of thinking, and therefore a potential paradigm shift: security and performance. Program design is another such skill. I noted in the article How to Help Mailing Lists Help Readers (Results of Recent Data Analysis) that many people ask questions on mailing lists and then disappear when others try to help them; I speculated that this is because they realized they didn't have the background to accomplish their tasks and could not go through the necessary personal transformation using just the help given on the list.

The best and most valuable computer documentation--like the most valuable education, journalism, or art--challenges our assumptions and leads to a paradigm shift. I believe that the difference between incremental learning and learning that challenges assumptions will increasingly define the difference between tasks for which people can find adequate help from volunteer documentation and tasks for which they seek professional documentation.

Several years ago an open source advocate offered me a view of historical development that maps onto my two-tier definition of documentation. So far as I know, the advocate never wrote up the view, so I'll try to summarize it here as best I understand it.

We have all learned a narrative about the history of economics that goes rather crudely like this: for most of human history, economic surplus could be derived from agriculture, and great feudal estates could be built on it. Then during the Industrial Revolution, agriculture became commoditized and value moved to manufacturing. After that, value moved to information.

Furthermore, to remain profitable, each stage of economic growth had to adopt techniques from later stages: agriculture had to become more like manufacturing, and then both had to adopt information-rich practices.

But the Information Age was surprisingly short. In an age of Wikipedia, powerful search engines, and forums loaded with insights from volunteers, information is truly becoming free (economically), and thus worth even less than agriculture or manufacturing. So what has replaced information as the source of value?

The answer is expertise. Because most activities offering a good return on investment require some rule-breaking--some challenge to assumptions, some paradigm shift--everyone looks for experts who can manipulate current practice nimbly and see beyond current practice. We are all seeking guides and mentors.

At a recent gathering where I aired this view, Seth Johnson of Open Book Software Publishing--who specializes in information quality management, and is an occasional advocate with the group New Yorkers for Fair Use--pointed out that there are many levels and dimensions to information's value. For instance, information may be valuable to particular people because it's timely, or because a particular enterprise produces more complete and accurate information than competing sources of information, or because it has the attributes and design necessary for a particular purpose. So the suggestion that you can't build a business on information is exaggerated.

The suggestion all this speculation holds for computer documentation is that the online medium can become a much more powerful educational force, and can help bring expert help to far greater groups of people all over the globe. Current mailing lists and forums are not set up for the intense, sustained interaction that allow for challenging assumptions and creating paradigm shifts.

But a combination of technological support and user commitment could promote more online learning. We should have rich media that allow people to differentiate themselves through avatars or other indications of personality, and technologies for forums that mix the immediacy of chat with spaces for posting and manipulating files. Culture change is also required: experts have to be willing to guide a new user step by step during explorations of a problem, and the new users have to take correction in good humor.

Finally, I am convinced that professionally written and professionally edited documentation will maintain its usefulness. A text, as English professors have long said, is one half of a conversation, and the reader provides the other half. (Famous texts become the focus of a multi-reader conversation that can continue for thousands of years, but that's another issue.) So a learner who can engage with a text as well as with a human trainer has a chance to benefit from a very concentrated form of expertise.

tags: open source  | comments: 11   | Sphere It

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Comments: 11

  Vincent van Wylick [09.05.07 06:44 AM]

It's a nicely written argument, but I'm sorry, I don't agree with you. Expertise is something that has always been valuable, before the information-age, after, and in-between. We will certainly need it to shift paradigms and transverse to a new age, but it does not, in my opinion, represent an age in itself. And with the age of free information, it is also doubtful whether expertise will have a high ROI for very long time either. For instance, I would feel fine developing expertise, using it for my own business, and publishing what I learned for free on my / a blog.

That said, I don't know what comes after the information age. Perhaps the age where we actually use it?

  Tom Clancy [09.05.07 06:57 AM]

I'm with Vincent: there's a lot of good stuff here, but expertise is a condition of one's involvement in something. You can't be "an expert" full stop. I think the Information Age is just getting warmed up.

  Tim O'Reilly [09.05.07 08:48 AM]


I'm not sure I believe your premise that information is becoming free. Just because some kinds of information are becoming widely available for free doesn't mean that all kinds are. In fact, I think there's a kind of law of conservation in this area, in which as some kinds of things become free, others become valuable and hoarded.

Take a look at financial markets. In theory, markets are based on the idea of everyone having access to the same information, but in fact, there are still huge information asymmetries being exploited all the time.

And while I do believe in the value of expertise, it seems to me that it's incorrect to say that it comes "after" the information age. Expertise has always been key to the information age.

Expertise, narrowly defined, is a body of specialized knowledge. That used to be valuable because human experts were the google of the day. They had read lots of books, had lots of experiences, and could integrate them. A big part of their expertise was as aggregators, curators, and communicators of knowledge.

What we're facing today in the collective intelligence era (which is what I'm going to start calling Web 2.0) is the rise of new forms of computer mediated aggregators and new forms of collective curation and communication.

These do, in many cases, replace the kind of expertise that I outline above.

But there's another kind of "expertise," which has more to do with intuition, insight, and application of knowledge. It can be enabled by knowing lots of stuff (the traditional definition of expertise) but it is far more than that, and in fact, sometimes benefits from knowing less. When all the experts agree, it's often the outsider with a fresh point of view who shakes things up.

What comes after the information age, I think, is actually the new manufacturing age, what Neal Stephenson called "the diamond age," in which information comes back to meet the world of stuff, and we are programming objects, and even living things.

  Dr. Ernie [09.05.07 09:27 AM]

I definitely think you're own to something. It used to be the scarce resource was land, then capital, then information. While all those are still valuable, they are no longer *the* scarce resource. It is a fascinating question what the new scarce resource will be.

My bet, for what its worth, is on "understanding", aka "clue." I see that as a bit broader than "expertise", which is easy to hire on your behalf (unlike clue! :-). Thanks for the thoughts. -- Ernie P.

  Michael [09.05.07 09:51 AM]

I'd like to think that the new truly scarce resource is time, just like it has always been.

  Alex Tolley [09.05.07 11:34 AM]

We are calling it the information age, but it was really the "data and analysis age". This age has been primarily about data collection and its analysis, with collection mostly via office jobs and analysis by domain specialists.

I think that I generally agree with your comment that information (although I would argue that it is data) is becoming free - i.e. its value per data point is rapidly declining, although its aggregate value may be increasing. I think what we are seeing in the web 2.0 world that there is a recognition that there is collective value in releasing data to society which can harness more talent and insights to grind it into higher level information than can be re-used.

Most companies I have worked for spend inordinate amounts of time trying to divine what they should create as their next manufactured object or service. Arguably that information is already out there for most products and services, but most companies assume that they must expend resources to discover it. So let's turn this paradigm on its head and assume that "the collective" can answer that question for most products. All a company would need to do is select the product/service that is closest to its core capabilities and create that.

What comes next? I would argue creativity to use the information. In the popular sense of moving from left brain to right brain activities. Creativity covers a very wide spectrum of activities, but I would certainly include as a core activity the ability to create new concepts by building new relationships between the pieces of data/information available. Developing this creativity and harnessing it is IMO a key to the next age. I believe that the "harnessing collective intelligence" meme is going to be a key part of this, as creativity is not the product of sole brains but the result of interactions of many people contributing their particular ideas, knowledge and expertise. Let me throw out the idea of crowd-(brain)storming as a possible example.

Tim: As an aside, you state: "there are still huge information asymmetries being exploited all the time". I was in that domain and left it because I could no longer see information asymmetries to exploit. This was clear from the increasing capital requirements via leverage to maintain any profitability in the financial markets. Structured investments and their ilk exploited buyer ignorance (and sellers too?), rather than any true information asymmetry. I know you are hoping for new information sources to emerge, but what is the basis for your statement in today's markets?

  Scott [09.11.07 04:28 PM]

I think this has been covered quite well already in other areas such as here.

The scarcity in our current environment is attention. Those that can capture and retain the attention of others are the ones that have the position of power.

From Britney, Madonna, Tim O'Reilly, Google & Digg. It doesn't matter if they're tech savvy or that technology is constantly changing and accelerating. They have all captured the attention of the masses through different means and the result is that they are in a position of power.

This source of power isn't going to change anytime soon.

  mgreenly [09.12.07 10:59 AM]

I've been known to say that far off in the future that after information has been completely commoditized we'll go through an age where first energy and than matter are commoditized. Of course that will not be for eons. I think We'll be trying to commoditize information for quite some time to come

...but between then and now maybe we'll have the age of specialization.

All this information will allow manufacturers and service providers to focus on the 'long tail'.

Individual's will become speacialist's in not one but a few disciplines, different from the few chosen by others allowing for really unique expert views.


  Heather [03.27.08 03:41 PM]

I'm not exactly sure what comes after, but I don't think it will be the "expertise age." Expertise has always been something that has been highly valued, and if that loses its value what will be next?

With information being more widely available to the average person I believe that we will go from being observers to practitioners. We will actually apply the knowledge we have obtained via the free information wave we are riding.

With people so widely sharing their understandings in blogs, forums, communities, and other online resources I hope that we will use what we have and evolve to apply our learnings.

Communities expand with the use of sites like http://www.stumblehere.com and obviously O'Reilly. And as communities expand, we as a people grow.

  gino [05.30.08 05:08 PM]

dude what you say about specialization age.. is already happening, only not for average Joe, if u know what i mean, gov. are already specializing in lot of technologies, like thermovent energy and other hightech stuff

  marvin peacock [01.10.09 12:58 PM]

I agree with with Heather

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