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The Implosion of Knowledge

Donald G. Perrin

Internet tools have dynamically increased the power of research, analysis, and creation of new knowledge. Interactivity on the Internet began as response, chat, and dialog on listservs. It has been raised to new heights by conferences, blogging, and Wikis, audiovisual components, and the powerful search engines of Google, Yahoo, MSN and others. These powerful tools, when properly used, provide accurate and current data in less time, and raise dialog on the Internet to the higher levels of the Bloom taxonomy. Many great scholars of this generation are moving from the isolation of the ivory tower to the information rich and collaborative environment of the Internet. Others are being virtually born on the Internet. Access to new ideas and the people who initiate them is multiplied exponentially.

Little Science, Big Science by Derek J de Solla Price, written in 1963, heralded the transition from individual to team research and development. Today collaborative skills are business essentials that are taking on global dimensions. Projects range from student groups in asynchronous online courses to global science and engineering development in virtual communities. As a result, product development cycles that used to take years are now accomplished in months.

Solla Price also talked of the “invisible college,” groups of innovators who discuss and develop ideas long before they are known to the public at large and even to their academic communities. Blogging provides an open forum for significant scholarly ideas. It opens the “invisible college” of innovators and intellectual leaders to the global learning community.

Solla Price discussed the exponential growth of knowledge and the impossible task of keeping indexes up to date. If only he could see what the Internet has done! Computer search engines maintain a current index of the global knowledge base, with tools for “in depth” searches that can drill down to a specific piece of information in a fraction of a second. I just wasted ten minutes searching my bookshelf for Solla Price’s book – without success (information overload). I typed “Solla Price” in Google, hit enter, and found 28,800 references in a third of one second. The fifth listed article was a Wikipedia article listing his publications and achievements.

The Wikipedia has its own answer to the explosion of knowledge. Every new publication (including this Journal) adds new information to the body of knowledge, but over 95% of information presented is redundant – it already exists in the global knowledge base. The Wikipedia is constantly updated, refined, and refereed by experts among its readers. It is a great example of “open source,” and is referenced in Stephen Downes article in this issue and in Thomas L. Friedman “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century,” 2005.

Technologies to manage redundancy are essential to counteract exponential growth. Object oriented computer programming is a way to package frequently used computer code as “objects.” In a similar manner, learning objects are frequently used knowledge components that can be combined by computer to create individualized lessons. Storing critical knowledge as learning objects can reduce redundant and irrelevant data so that instead of exponential growth of knowledge, the growth rate can be controlled. Perhaps one day in the future it will be possible to pare down or implode the knowledge base as we know it.

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