Every second of every day, information of every type is being ingested and stored in more ways than ever. Transactional records, health narratives, personal anecdotes, product reviews, skateboarding pigs...if it can be captured with digital media, it can be stored as a unit of information. And if it can be stored, it can be connected.
I have proposed before that every one of those units of information adds exponential value to every other unit to which it can be connected. That's because every connection adds new context-- and every context is the chance for new meaning, and new innovation. In fact, the most unlikely connections oftentimes yield the most valuable new meanings.
Think about it-- how many inventions that we take for granted today, from penicillin to post-it notes, were considered 'mistakes' or accidents when they came about? I would contend these inventions were not really errors however, but simply good information systems waiting for a better context. In the context of gluing things together permanently, the organization of molecules that make up post-it glue had no value; in a different context (the temporary sticking needs of the office worker), that same information system had real value. Same information system, given new context. New context, new opportunity for value.
So how many other 'mistakes' are out there-- aggregations of information, in the forms of invention blueprints, drug molecules, screenplay ideas, or fashion thoughts, that are simply waiting for a new context to become complete, and relevant, to the world around them? Sometimes all its take is a 'magic bullet'- one new piece of information added to the system, to create the epiphany that turns work potential into real value-- much like the one unlikely piece of information that turns mystery into 'case closed' for Lieutenant Colombo in episode after episode (see my previous post if this makes no sense to you...).
But today, there is a growing imbalance in the systems we use to manage our digital information. Classic IT approaches are much better at collecting information than they are at connecting it. The results, both within organizations and between them, are massive silos of information, each valuable in its own right, but each segregated by technology, business practice and fear of theft or loss. Information stays close to the 'hood in our current IT systems, hanging out only with its closest friends, never exposed to the wide wide world around it, and never realizing the context it is missing. The results are huge limitations in the creation of context. The marketing database in a company never gets to talk to the service database, so it does not learn new insights about customers. The protein database in a drug company never 'talks to' the blogs about recurring symptoms that live on a social networking site, so it never sees the patterns that its drugs could address. The movie screenplay idea on a student's FaceBook page never runs into the biography of the one director who would be perfect to develop it. Everyday in the apartheid of modern information systems, a billion new contexts don't get created. And thus a billion new innovations do not yet become reality.
The good news is, all that is changing. Social media platforms. Content management strategies. Metadata (information about information), built automatically into business data and appended organically (think tagging and reviews) to videos, audio files and images. Search engines that can look inside a document (and inside a video) to create the metadata that makes relevancy-- and therefore useful context-- richer than ever. Information-centric security technologies that don't rely on locking information away to ensure safety, but instead can set if free in search of new contexts, with confidence and protection.
Information gets Promiscuous- and That's a Good Thing
As these new trends intersect we are soon to see an explosion, not of content, but of context. And I believe this explosion will unleash a new step-function in innovation and invention. True invention, as they say in science, happens in the white space between disciplines. The same holds true in art, music and every other human endeavor. These new means of connecting information will drive right into those white spaces, enabling information of all different kinds to connect in all manner of ways, creating new structures, new patterns and new information systems of their own. The results will be an explosion of context-- seeing new connections between information, and applying those connections to even broader contexts. As organizations and individuals feel safer and freer about sharing their information with the world, this trend will accelerate. Think of today's databases and content repositories as massive fuel rods in a nuclear reactor. Tremendous stored energy, only waiting for the lead shields between them to be removed for their potential energy to be unleashed, and massive power to start flowing down the networking lines that connect us all. Human being are the best creators of context- our minds are geared to make connections- to recognize patterns. We will be the one that turn that power into action. And as we teach our software programs and information systems to perform those same functions in even the simplest of ways, we will amplify our capabilities. We will create a 'critical mass' of information that can feed on itself in positive ways, pumping out trillion and trillions of iJoules of energy, and transforming our world for the better.
Some theories of physics propose the idea that we are just one of an infinite number of parallel universes. All taken together, those universes represent every possible information system; every possible combination of atoms and energy exists somewhere in one of these universes. What does that mean? It means that somewhere across these infinite universes, every healing drug has been invented. Every stirring opus has been written. Every great painting has been painted. What do those other universes have that we don't? Nothing, other than some different contexts we have not yet found-- different intersections of information we have not yet understood. They have the same raw information, just put together in some different ways. So by unlocking the power of context, we unlock the secrets of those other universes. We uncover the contexts they already have found, and we gain the benefit of the inventions and insights they already made. The possibility of every conceivable innovation is within our grasp- all we need is to let the our information lead the way.
What will be the impact of this sharing on art? on science? On our sense of community? I think it will be enormous. I hope it will be unpredictable. And I am betting it will be here sooner than we think.