paul_saffo's picture
Technology Forecaster; Consulting Associate Professor, Stanford University

Back in the mid-1700s, Samuel Johnson observed that there were two kinds of knowledge: that which you know, and that which you know where to get. It was a moment when cheap and abundant print coupled with reliable postal networks triggered an information explosion that dramatically changed the way people thought. Johnson's insight was crucial because until then scholars relied heavily on the first kind of knowledge, the ability to know and recall scarce information. Abundant print usurped this task and in the process created the need for a new skill — Johnson's knowing "where to get it."

Print offloaded knowing from memory to paper and in the process triggered a revolution focused on making knowledge easier to get. Johnson's great Dictionary of the English Language — the first modern dictionary — was an exemplar of this effort, followed in the next century by innovations from Roget's thesaurus, to catalogs, index cards and file cabinets. As the store of paper-based knowledge grew, the new skill of research displaced the old skill of recall. A scholar could no longer get by on memory alone — one had to know where and how to get knowledge.

Now the Internet is changing how we think again. Just as print took over the once-human task of knowing, cyberspace is assuming the task of knowing where to get what we seek. A single click now accomplishes what once required days in a research library. A well-phrased search query is vastly more effective than resort to a card catalogue, and one no longer needs to master a thesaurus just to find a synonym. Knowing where to get is now the domain of machines, not humans.

Make something easy to do and skills once reserved to elites will become tools of the masses. Electronic calculators were not mere slide rule substitutes; they made computation convenient and accessible to everyone. The Internet is changing our thinking by giving the tremendous power of search to the most casual of users. We have democratized knowledge-finding in the same way 18th century publishing democratized knowledge access.

Computers have become intellectual bulldozers for the curious, but the result falls short of the utopian knowledge future hoped for at the dawn of the Internet. Back in Johnson's time the public reveled in their newfound access, buying up books, consuming newspapers and sending endless streams of letters to friends. It must have been exhilarating, but much of it was to utterly no purpose. Now we revel in search, but most of what we search for isn't worth seeking, as the top search lists on Google, Yahoo and Bing make clear. Couch potatoes who once channel-surfed their way through TV's vast wasteland have morphed into mouse potatoes Google-surfing the vaster wasteland of Cyberspace. They are wasting their time more interactively, but they are still wasting their time.

The Internet has changed our thinking, but if it is to be a change for the better, we must add a third kind of knowledge to Johnson's list — the knowledge of what matters. Two centuries ago the explosion of print demanded a new discipline of knowing where to find knowledge. When looking up was hard, one's searches inevitably tended towards seeking only what really mattered. Now that finding is easy, the temptation to chase down info-fluff is as seductive as a 17th century Londoner happily wallowing in books with no purpose. Without a discipline of knowing what matters, we will merely amuse ourselves to death.

Knowing what matters is more than mere relevance. It is the skill of asking questions that have purpose, that lead to larger understandings. Formalizing this skill seems as strange to us today as a dictionary must have seemed in 1780, but I'll bet it emerges just as surely as print abundance led to whole new disciplines devoted to organizing information for easy access. The need to determine what matters will inspire new modes of cyber-discrimination and perhaps even a formal science of determining what matters. Social media hold great promise as discrimination tools, and AI hints at the possibility of cyber-Cicerones who would gently keep us on track as we traverse the vastness of cyberspace in our enquiries. Perhaps the 21st century equivalent of the Great Dictionary will be assembled by a wise machine that knows what matters most.