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A billion monkeys

Part one: The dual combination of information and access

By Rudy Nadler-Nir

Consider that old saying, “give a million monkeys a million typewriters and a thousand years and they’ll give you Shakespeare.”

We’ve been monkeying-around about the Web with our keyboards for almost a decade now and, to paraphrase the famous quote by Cyber-dweller Blair Houghton, “Come to think of it, there are already a million monkeys on a million typewriters, and the Web is nothing like Shakespeare.”

A billion monkeys, more like it.

We are producing unblievable amounts of data. According to a study done at the University of California at Berkeley, the world produces 250 million megabytes of data for every person on the planet. To illustrate: one page of printed text takes about 1400 bytes and a 1000 page book takes up about 1,4 megabytes. This means that a single person’s data-allocation of 250 million megabytes can fill-up 178,571,429 books of 1000 pages.

This is of course a statistical tromp l’euil – an optical illusion. Truth is that the majority of people on earth are neither literate nor digerate, leaving the task of producing mounts of data in the hands – and keys – of the elite-few.

Did we gain anything from almost ten years of monkeying? Aside from a mammoth information hangover, what – if anyhting – did the Web contribute to humanity?

The answer, I believe, lies in the very existance of information as a by-product. Beyond the statistical fireworks, it is a fact that a growing number of people produce a dynamic knowledgebase that is on the constant increase. For that part, at least, the parable of the keyboard-clicking monkeys still holds true. What is even more crucial here is that, while the amount of information generated is ever-growing, so is the number of people who have access to that information.

Think of it as currency exchange – if one person has a million dollars he affects his surounding only inasmuch as he spends. If, on the other hand, one million people had one dollar each, the spending permuatations will be endless.

Far from being just a logistics burden, the proliferartion of information can be the harbinger of great news about the future of literature, art, philosophy, science and other components we band together under the tag “culture”.

The dual combination of information and access is the driving power here. From this point of view, the parable of the monkeys is deeply anchored in industrial revolution paradigms, where millions of monekys toil for millions of hours and days to produce work. A post-industrial parable probably requires fewer keyboard-bound monekys and more interrogatory facilities.

Tomorrow’s anthropoligists will have to study customer behaviour in a retail environment. Doctors will need to factor in fashion, lifestyle and other non-physiological elements to get to the bottom of 21st century illnesses. Teachers will spend time playing the latest video games, to be able to better undestand the universe within which their pupils live and operate. Parents will need to have access to the kind of professionals described here – and many more – to keep in touch with the offsprings’ developing psyche.

How can the proliferation of – and easy access to – information cause all this? Think about the first year after the printing press was invented. All of a sudden one could find multitude copies of books that, until then, had a few hand-copied issues.

How important was this fact to our culture? It was crucial. Think of the difference to Christianity and its rival religions between ten copies of the New Testament and a million copies. Think of the difference between a thousand – and a million – copies of Karl Marx’s writing, of Sigmund Freud’s studies, of literary phenomena like “The Lord of the Rings” or Harry Potter.

But information isn’t only printed; 15 years ago we had no way to find out what Nelson Mandela looked like. Today this forced blackout would have been almost impossible – a tiny digital camera linked to a cellphone could have been smuggled into jail to get a current picture taken of Madiba and then posted onto a web site.

Next week in part two: Molecular monkeys scouring around inside

Rudy Nadler-Nir is an independent e-strategist and Brain-for-Rent. Check Rudy’s personal web site, at http://eclectic.co.za or email him at rudyn@eclectic.co.za

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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