Fueling an Exponential Growth in Human Knowledge

Why do innovations in methods of engagement with the Internet matter?

It is not difficult to feel that we are living in the most perilous time in human history – imminent threats to our existence are now global in scale and avoiding their fate will require unprecedented cooperation across lines that have divided us throughout our evolution. The greatest tool we have for the large scale change necessary to overcome these challenges is the human mind and the collective wisdom of all who have come before us. Information – a scarce resource for most of human history – has experienced an exponential growth as it has been collected and made available to billions of people through connectivity to the Internet. Harnessing this into knowledge and innovation to meet the grand challenges that face us is no longer an issue of scarcity, it is an issue of accessibility.

In 2010 Eric Schmidt (former CEO of Google) explained: “Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until  2003. That’s something like five exabytes of data. Let me repeat that, we create as much information in two days now as we did from the dawn of man through 2003.”

We are in the midst of an information and communications revolution that is rapidly penetrating the entire human population – In the next decade, more than three billion new people will be connected to the Internet, entering what we now call a global village, thirsty for information, and looking to contribute to local and global economies. How we are able to access and process this exponentially growing collection of information will have a massive influence on increasing human capability and fundamentally reshaping our future – resulting in discoveries, products, and innovations that will affect all of humanity.

How will we re-imagine our connection to digital content?

Search engines allow people to query this expanding trough of information to answer questions, seek entertainment and follow a linear path of discovery through point-to-point connective hyperlinks. Google has famously crafted algorithms in pursuit of their mission “to gather and make accessible the world’s most useful information” that allow their search engine to distinguish “bio” being short for biography when John Doe bio is queried and biological when bio weapon is searched. Their ability to deliver results relevant to the intent of the person conducting the search is now legendary and is the reason for their competitive dominance. But is this the portal of accessibility that will allow an explosion of information to be transformed into comparable expansion of knowledge and innovation? No. What is needed is a fundamental paradigm shift – access through call-and-response inquiry will always be a significant piece of any information interface, but a contextual understanding of end user interest must be able to proactively gather and surround us with relevant opportunities of engagement that are determined through intelligence, not popularity (link connectivity).

The current trend of personalized search is a limited attempt to mimic this – Instead of giving you the most broadly popular result, Google now tries to predict what you are most likely to click on based on your search history and the profile they have created of you. Alarmists warn that this tailoring of results based on personal filtering creates dangerous feedback loops. Eli Pariser, in his book “The Filter Bubble”, leads this charge by claiming that “this growing trend threatens to control how we consume and share information as a society.”  The worry is that “our past interests will determine what we are exposed to in the future, leaving less room for the unexpected encounters that spark creativity, innovation, and the democratic exchange of ideas. Personalization undermines the Internet’s original purpose as an open platform for the spread of ideas and could leave us all in an isolated, echoing world.”

Our personal preferences limiting our willingness to look outside our worldview and established patterns of thinking is a product of human brain function and stages of psychological development – it has existed since the evolution of the cerebral cortex and the isolation it can cause is not new to the age of the Internet. But the idea of an open platform being presented without judgement fails to understand our capacity to process information and make decisions. Decades of cutting-edge behavioral science research show that having too many choices can create an information overload, causing a decrease in engagement and an unwillingness to process information. In their groundbreaking book “Nudge”, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein explain the effect of choice architecture and its ability to influence people’s decision making process without restricting their freedom of choice. “Choice architecture is the context in which you make your choice. The architecture includes rules deciding what happens if you do nothing; what’s said and what isn’t said; what you see and what you don’t.” Increased accessibility to information will be fueled by engagement. Utilizing the scientific underpinnings of engagement is fundamental to imagining a paradigm shift to an abundance of accessibility. In an environment of exponentially expanding content, context is king. So what should guide this necessary choice architecture?

In the middle of the 20th century, Abraham Maslow developed his Theory of Human Motivation and spent subsequent years studying human beings’ innate curiosity. His hierarchy of needs parallels other theories of human developmental psychology – focusing on stages of growth. Maslow uses the terms Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, and Self-Actualization needs to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.

Developmental psychologists agree that the 3-4 (lower) basic needs must be met before an individual will move on to (or focus motivation upon) secondary or higher level needs. His focus in discussing the hierarchy was to identify the basic types of motivations, and the order that they generally progress as lower needs are met.

The Internet, as a collective human expression parallels these motivations and therefore allows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to provide a useful tool for imagining new models of engagement. Physiological needs can be seen to match infrastructure needs. Safety and security needs closely match developments in search engine technology – a concrete need to find answers, directions, people, places, etc., based on a concern or desire to know something. Love and belonging needs provide an excellent backdrop to understand the explosion of social media and its growing influence on how the web functions. Integrating our need for self-esteem – confidence, achievement, the respect of others, the need to be a unique individual – holds the key for designing access models with the wealth of information available to us that propel us forward and dominate the next age of the Internet.

What will these new models of engagement do?

Innovations in Internet engagement will be characterized by transparency and flux. Anonymity – a dominant ethos of the early Internet – has been overcome by data collection and profiling. As it has evolved to become an omnipresent and monetized phenomenon, tension and paranoia surrounding issues of Internet privacy have grown. Lack of privacy on the Internet is currently viewed as a threat. Transparency forces integrity and is the only scalable and sustainable solution for Internet governance. New models of engagement must make transparency empowering. Flux does not describe an unexpected and inherently unwelcome change, but rather a continuous flow. As an operating paradigm in the context of increasing the accessibility of information, it expresses the fluid nature of relationships, interests, needs, responsibilities and entertainment which are ever changing in non-linear ways. Effective engagement models must anticipate where these aspects of our lives intersect and the interdependent variables that must coalesce in order to deliver an experience that is unique and meaningful to each of us.

Re-imagining our interface with information in a way that intelligently and proactively collects and delivers content in accordance with our interests, talents and needs will fuel a revolution in human knowledge, development, and cooperation at just the moment when much of the world’s population will be experiencing a connection to it for the first time. Developing the means to an abundance of accessibility to information on the Internet will have profound implications for individual development and meeting collective challenges – positively affecting the lives of billions of human beings.