Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Polymaths, experts, and the new information hunter-gatherers

I chewed through more than a few metaphors to try to encapsulate a concept that's been occupying my thoughts a great deal lately. In the end, describing it simply was best.

Before the connectivity of the modern world, the learned elite gained information in isolation, with exacting slowness. What one person learned was very often confined to that one person. Reading something and committing it to memory, or writing it out in a personal reference/index system were ways to gain and retain knowledge. One person could be a deep, thorough expert in their field, calling to mind a host of examples and connections based on personal study and personal experience. Their knowledge was internalized and kept secure with themselves, and they could speak eloquently on their subject by drawing on their own store of expertise.

Now, a new expert is emerging, more along the model of a card catalog. Think of a person who may not be able to speak eloquently on, for example, the various dictates of the Second Lateran Council of 1139, but who has a broad grasp of the movement of history during the 12th century and can easily and quickly locate information about the canon law adopted during the council, articles that interpret particular aspects of that law, and is savvy enough to sort through junk information to find relevant details quickly.

Think of the first as a person who stores information, and the second as a person who stores pathways to information. The second person will be able to move more quickly, access a broader range of subjects, and use the tools of the modern world more effectively.

But the first person is our deep thinker, who can connect all the dots of a problem and can speak with authority. The first person knows the location, hours, and menu of a local Mexican restaurant because they have been there; the second person knows that the restaurant is down the street a ways, and can quickly narrow down to the correct restaurant on his iPhone.

Are we moving toward a culture where we value the latter over the former? Is the latter more uniquely suited to the world today, and the former is a dying breed? Does everyone need a bit of both? Which is the more useful in a museum environment - or do we need both? Are the experts our curators, and the indexes our visitor services managers?

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