I had the incredibly good fortune a few months back to hang out with a room full of librarians. These were not your run-of-the-mill librarians however. They were the custodians for the Presidential libraries of several of our more recent presidents. Very impressive people.
During the discussion, Betty Flowers of the Lyndon Johnson Library and Museum highlighted a capability they have built into the website for the Library of President Johnson. It is called the Presidential Timeline and it doesn't just cover President Johnson-- it covers twelve presidents from Hoover to Clinton http://www.presidentialtimeline.org/. It is a compelling and insightful way to view the major events in the life of a president and even lets you overlap multiple presidents to see where they were in their lives at different points.
Cool enough by itself, but here's where it gets interesting.
One of the examples we looked at was the Gulf on Tonkin attacks during Johnson's presidency. We heard audio and saw documents related to this crisis, showing tremendous insight into the views and decisions of President Johnson. (If you want an amazing insight into what it's like to be president go to the timeline right now: Click 'Exhibits' then 'Lyndon Johnson' then 'Gulf of Tonkin'. Then click on numbers four and five at the bottom. It is incredibly compelling and moving content.)
We also discussed the Bay of Pigs crisis and content around that. The comment was made in the meeting that the team on this project was approaching the Russians to provide the same sort of information on the Bay of Pigs crisis, to include documents and narratives from the Russian point of view. Imagine that-- in one place, the ability to see such a critical world event from multiple contexts, eliminating gaps in perception and revealing how the actions of these leaders and countries impacted each other in real time. For my mind's eye, it was the equivalent of the first time I saw a color television picture (yes I am old enough to remember that moment). The level of richness and clarity was almost a physical sensation. And that's what the folks at the Libraries of Congress and others are creating around the events that shaped our world as it is today.
Now imagine we could do that for every important world event. What leaps in human understanding would we gain? What insight would we get into the thousand of tiny misperceptions, miscommunications and blind spots that can often put nations on the brink of war-- or right into the throes of it?
That's the power of context-- and the potential of bringing together all the world's digital information. Information and context become completely transparent and totally dimensional.
Imagine having that for business decisions too-- being able to overlay the viewpoints, knowledge and conversations of multiple people to figure out how the good (and bad) decisions got made, and what contexts drove the process. Much could be learned, I think.
The means to do this exists today: the ability to digitize information in many forms; the ability to add metadata to enable creation of new contexts; and the raw computing and storage power to bring it all together, literally and virtually.
It truly will make planet earth a small world after all. And one brought together by the modest librarians to whom this sort of idea comes as naturally as does the Dewey decimal system.
If you want to know more about this project and the amazing people behind it, click here. http://www.presidentialtimeline.org/about.php