Thursday, October 8, 2009

Knowledge in an age of abundance

A talk at LITA Forum by David Weinberger, author of Everything Is Miscellaneous.

"Citing the Scottish philosopher Andy Clark, Weinberger explained that the internet becomes almost a sort of extension of our mind (scaffolding, he called it) so that we think with our brains and store information elsewhere."

My reaction:

Information abundance (for the affluent or for affluent societies, anyway) does seem to be a primary characteristic of our information economy. Our institutions though are shaped by the past environment that was characterized by information scarcity. Libraries seem a prime example. When information is scarce, then collecting it creates pockets of abundance for specific sets of users in particular places--a city, a university, etc. But when information is abundant, then creating local collections of information (to overcome information's "natural" scarcity) is a waste of time. The environment libraries (and the host institutions of libraries: cities, nations, universities, etc.) thrived within is gone. Libraries and other institutions built for an information economy characterized by scarcity must re-make themselves so they fit an information abundance economy. Libraries--as we have known them--are moot.

One model for libraries that seems to be working in the abundant information economy is the library as museum. The library becomes less information-centric and more artifact-centric. Artifacts may remain scarce, so the scarcity-based model of a library as museum could work for collections of rare, unique or otherwise special materials. But libraries as information-centric institutions are ill-suited for an abundant information economy. Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of this ill-fit is that libraries are primarily _local_ institutions that serve a host organization (city, state, university, etc.) The new organizations that have grown up in the abundant information economy are global: Amazon, Google, etc., and one can see a similar pattern of movement from many small local entities to a few large global entities in other information-centric activities like banking and stock brokerage.

In an age of abundant information, the information-centric organizations we need help us find what we are looking for (search tools like Google,) share what we have found (like blogs and social tools), and use or re-use what we have found (productivity tools designed with the "cloud" in mind.) The traditional infrastructure libraries and similar collection-oriented institutions provide doesn't address the needs of users in an economy of information abundance. It seems likely that the information-centric organizations that emerge to help users navigate and manage and use abundant information will be global organizations that are not subordinate to local host institutions like Sioux City, Iowa, the US Dept. of Labor, Yale University, etc. Its a big change.


  1. An additional thought: information abundance is not the same as knowledge abundance. Scarcity and abundance don't seem to be the right points on a continuum for understanding knowledge. Knowledge--hard to speak at all about such abstractions--seems more particulate. Knowledge implies a knower and so singular consciousnesses set a limit to accumlations of knowledge. One can only know so much. And everyone's knowledge is as separte as everyone is. The only connection between separate consciousnesses is through communication actions or objects like conversation, writings, maps, drawings, etc.

  2. Interesting post! We live in an age of information abundance, which challenges the library's role as repository of knowledge. And yet, because there are so many content providers out there with questionable motives and standards of quality, we now find ourselves suffering from a scarcity of *attention* which results in “information overload”. Here’s hoping libraries continue to help people spend their endangered attention resources wisely.