Elgan: Will gadgets make knowledge obsolete?

When everyone can find out anything, anytime, anywhere -- why learn?

In the 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, author William Gibson describes a future in which people can acquire knowledge by buying special chips called "microsofts" that plug into a surgically installed jack behind the ear. Once you plug in the chip, your brain can access its database and — voila! — knowledge!

It's an interesting and creepy idea, but one that we're going to have to face eventually. No, not painful implants; we're going to have to face the problem of education in a world in which nearly all knowledge is available to everyone, instantly, all the time.

A mere 20 years ago, almost no one had heard of the Internet, had ever used a cell phone or even knew what "GPS" stood for.

Today, most people I know over the age of 12 use the Internet every day, access data all day on their cell phones and use GPS gadgets to get from one place to another. Mobile broadband is rapidly getting faster. Mobile devices are getting radically better screens and user interfaces. And the whole world of data access on mobile devices is quickly bringing us to the point where we can find out just about anything from anywhere.

Where will we be 20 years from now in terms of our ability to access any information from anywhere? The mind boggles. Let's look at a few trends.

Trend No. 1: The rise of Internet-connected smart phones. Smart phone shipments are up 29%, according to market research firm Gartner Inc., and now represent 11% of the worldwide cell phone market. In many countries, they represent the majority of sales. As handset prices drop, and data plans and online services become more compelling, smart phones will largely replace "dumb" phones for just about everybody and become totally mainstream.

Trend No. 2: The increasing speed of data connections. Both the number of people upgrading to mobile broadband, and the speed of those connections, are rising very fast. Cell-phone maker Ericsson predicts that mobile broadband subscribers could reach 2.2 billion within five years. As of January, there were 204 HSDPA (3.5G) networks in 89 countries either fully operational or well on their way. This level of performance will quickly go mainstream, and users will start looking forward to 4G, or Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) performance on their phones, which will be capable of downloads as fast as 280Mbit/sec., two orders of magnitude faster than DSL on a desktop PC!

Trend No. 3: Improvements in user interfaces. The Apple iPhone and its ginormous, high-quality screen and intuitive user interface reset the bar for how easy and appealing grabbing online data over a phone should be. Imitators abound, and all are scrambling to produce ever better mobile-data experiences.

Trend No. 4: Advancements in voice recognition and artificial intelligence. Voice command is slowly creeping into our phones. Little by little, our phones' GPS functionality, applications and Web browsing will be controllable with the spoken word. Increasingly, our commands will be processed on remote servers that can "learn" and figure out what we're looking for, and present it in the way that's most usable. As services like GOOG-411 (dial 1-800-466-4411 to try it) become more popular, people will increasingly use voice-command systems to get information anytime, anywhere.

Trend No. 5: More information online. There are more than 168 billion Web sites on the Internet, according to an Internet services company called Netcraft. The total number of sites — not pages, but sites — increases by roughly 3 million each month. That's a primitive measure, but it's clear that knowledge is going online. Newly generated information increasingly shows up on public servers, and old books and other sources of knowledge are being scanned and digitized at a feverish pace. There are currently more than 2 million English-language articles on the Wikipedia, a number that has doubled since 2006.

Trend No. 6: Improvements in search. The success of Google, which largely leveraged high-quality search to place itself at the center of the technology universe, has focused competitors to innovate in search as well. Now Google has created a search-centric mobile platform called Android that should drive major improvements in cell-phone Internet searching.

If all these trends continue to develop over the next 10 years, what will the result be? It's impossible to predict, but you can bet we'll all be carrying phones that, with a simple voice command, instantly retrieve exactly the information we're looking for 99% of the time, and from anywhere, 24/7.

What's the difference between this cell phone of the future and Gibson's vision of "microsoft" chips? The only difference is that the microsofts seem clunky, useless and antiquated in comparison to the breathtaking knowledge machine everyone will carry in his or her pocket or purse.

When schoolchildren know with certainty that they will never be without a device that tells them any information they could ever want to know, how motivated will they be to sit there and memorize state capitals and other such trivia? How motivated will schools and teachers be to force this on kids?

The idea that knowledge could become obsolete is a creepy and objectionable one. The pursuit of knowledge is among our most cherished values. But mobile devices and the mobile Internet are already enabling us to deliberately remain ignorant on specific topics we used to have to know. Here are just a few examples.

GPS: In the past, if you wanted to drive to somewhere new, you had to gather information like maps or directions and study them. I've noticed that GPS users come to rely on things like turn-by-turn directions and stop trying to learn anything about where their destination is or how to get there. We hop into our cars in blissful ignorance, simply plugging in an address and obeying our GPS's commands.

Laptops: I do a lot of radio and have noticed that everyone on the radio these days — the hosts, the guests, etc. — is sitting in front of an Internet-connected PC or laptop while on the air. Both guests and hosts are on the radio because they're experts or they know something. Yet there's literally no downside to supplementing knowledge in real time with online resources. People outside broadcasting do this, too, on telephone conference calls and other situations where you can hear the person but not see him. They are, in effect, using their laptops as Gibsonian microsofts to augment their knowledge. Using an Internet-connected device when called upon to know something is simply what people do whenever they can.

Cell phones: Internet-connected smart phones are becoming the Mother of All Knowledge Replacement Devices. For general information, people head straight for Google or Wikipedia and to more specialized sites, which are increasingly mobile-friendly, for detailed, often job-specific information. The availability of this information is making people more relaxed about knowledge in general.

So whether the idea of knowledge obsolescence strikes you as horrible or not, it is already happening and is tied directly to the quality and availability of gadgets.

Maybe this is an opportunity

The truth is that we forget just about everything we learn in the 12 years we go to school. Yes, much of that lost knowledge served as building blocks for subsequent knowledge and intellectual abilities that enabled us to develop into who we are now. But broadly speaking, the difference between an educated 40-year-old and a 40-year-old moron is not how much they learned in school but what those people have done since graduating. A curious, active reader who uses reference materials promiscuously is going to be far better educated than someone who doesn't read and doesn't care about knowing anything.

In other words, the current educational system is deeply flawed. How many new high school graduates come across as people who just devoted the last 12 years of their lives to learning? Would we all be better off if we had spent more of our precollege education on skills, including how to find and process knowledge, than on memorizing facts that will soon be forgotten and can easily be retrieved later?

Maybe mobile devices will free us to transform our educational system into one that doesn't kill children's curiosity and sour them to the idea of reading a book. Maybe if kids don't have to spend so much time forcing themselves to memorize facts they've already got in their pockets, they can have less homework and regain their childhoods. Maybe we'll come to realize that knowledge — the storing of data in our brains just in case we might need it someday — isn't valuable to us. And if we can let the computers do that part for us, we can focus on what we do best, which is to recognize patterns, explore ideas and follow our curiosity.

Will knowledge become obsolete? I have no idea. But I do believe that carrying a hundred Libraries of Congress in our pockets changes our relationship with knowledge and will force us to rethink how we acquire it.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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