The central challenge facing most knowledge-based institutional systems – education, health, knowledge-driven industries, communications, etc., is the paradigm shift in man’s relationship to knowledge and its use.
For nearly 500 years now, there has been an increasing distribution of knowledge: first in the form of information embodied in newspapers, books, magazines; second, films & television, and finally, internet & mobile-based communications. This 500 year march has been marked by an increasingly intense drive to reduce communication costs, increase reach and lower the cost to user of entertainment and information.
In the past 20 years, with the rapid growth of the internet, the quantum and range of information available to users has gone up dramatically – leading to a new situation unseen in man’s relationship with information before – too much ‘access’ to knowledge.
It is at this juncture, that man faces a new challenge, which he has not encountered meaningfully in his history. The challenge of making sense of it all: the challenge of meaningful utilization of knowledge for productive use – the challenge of assimilating information not at a societal level alone, but also at an individual level.
This challenge – the challenge of assimilation – can be called ‘the last 12 inches problem’: the distance between the personal computer screen and the user’s head.
This is the ‘cognitive distance’ between information and understanding which needs to be crossed after crossing the ‘geographical distance’ between creator of knowledge and user of knowledge.
This is a new problem.
Man has never faced the problem of use – whether food, clothing, shelter or even primary education. Availability has implied use of these resources.
For example, if food is made available, then it follows that people have the ‘capacity to consume’ it. If clothing is made available, it is taken for granted that people will be able to ‘use’ them.
In fact, these are all physical access goods, wherein, the problem of ‘capacity to use’ is never brought up as an issue in distribution.
At a superficial level, information is perceived as no different from these physical access goods. If there is more information distributed more widely, then it apparently follows that it will be used effectively by receivers of that information.
But study after study, notable among them being the work of Paul Strassman (a leading analyst of the cost-effectiveness of IT Systems) and Richard Saul Wurman (who coined the term Information Anxiety and defined it as the black hole between data and knowledge) have shown this is not necessarily true. More information does not lead to better understanding and more ‘informed’ action.
For example, in the context of communicating information to customers Strassman emphasizes that, “The guiding principle of the approach to designing information work should not be inward-looking but customer-oriented”.*
Wurman asserts that information anxiety is produced by the “over-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. It happens when information does not tell us what we want or need to know”.**
Physical access to information, like access to roads, is a necessary ‘physical’ infrastructure that must be laid as a foundation for man’s progress.
But the real challenge before mankind will be in creating universal access to understanding – ‘cognitive access’ – i.e., enabling the common man to fruitfully and meaningfully use information in a manner that will result in tangible improvements in the way he works and the way he lives.
Creating cognitive access is not an easy terrain to cross.
Assimilating information depends upon the users’ ability to understand, the context for the information, and the link between the new information and the existing knowledge base already in the head.
Creating cognitive access is clearly an ‘individual-centric’, ‘difficult to measure’, ‘complex’ concept. It is related to creating the optimal conditions for users to understand and assimilate knowledge easily.
Correspondingly, creating ‘universal’ cognitive access, i.e. creating optimal conditions for the easy and effective use of available knowledge by all those who receive it is the key challenge intrinsic to the goal of creating universal access to knowledge.
If we are to be content with allowing each individual to gain cognitive access based only on his or her individual capability, then we are opening the doorway to a problem that has already ravaged this country once, and has the capacity to destroy it again: the ‘understanding divide’ – which creates a ‘knowledge-rich’ ruling class that controls access to the very source of all progress!
Only this time it will not be physical access to information, but access to the benefits of that information.
As more and more information is made available as a result of fiber-optic highways and the widespread availability of communication infrastructure, we will see the contours of the ‘understanding divide’ become clearer.
Those who understand will benefit immensely from the investments we are making in information and its availability. Those who don’t will be left further behind than they were before!
(Originally written in 2004)
* Paul A. Straussman , “The Transformation of work in the Electronic Age” [pg.27, 170, 184], Free Press.
** Richard Saul Wurman , “Information Anxiety”, Doubleday [1st edition].