Instant Info


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In a world where Google, Wikipedia and Twitter can tell you almost anything almost instantly, are we smarter or dumber than we’ve ever been?

Think about these examples:

• You’re with a group of people and the question comes up, “When is daylight savings time?” Someone whips out their iPhone and Googles the answer. They can even tell you which countries follow daylight savings and which don’t. This info takes about 60 seconds to find, and you could be anywhere, as long as there’s Internet connectivity.

• You’re in Best Buy shopping for a digital camera, and you wonder if that sale price is a bargain. With your iPhone, you snap a picture of the barcode and upload it to an app that scans a database of UPCs and tells you that camera is available at for $9.45 less, plus free shipping.

• It’s Thanksgiving morning, you’re in the kitchen preparing to cook, and you suddenly realize you don’t know what to do with that acorn squash you picked up at the grocery—because it just looked so autumnal! Go to Twitter, tweet your question (“Best recipes for acorn squash?”; 30 characters!), and your followers tweet back links to web sites with great recipes, including reviews from other cooks.

The breadth and depth of information currently available literally at our fingertips is remarkable.

But has this made us smarter?

Not yet. Because there’s a gap between information and knowledge and we’re just starting to cross it.

That gap is the difference between a library and a librarian or a school and a scholar. One is a place with information; the other is a person with knowledge. You can also think of it as the difference between data and comprehension.

Within the Internet industry (my career for the last dozen years), we constantly talk about What’s Next? What is “Web 3.0”?

For some Internet companies, the answer is knowledge. Some companies are attempting to close the gap between the library and the librarian.

New search engines such as Hunch and Wolfram Alpha are less about matching keywords and more about knowledge discovery. You type in, “How do I find a marketing job in San Francisco?” or “Should I move to Seattle?”, and these next-generation sites actually give you a meaningful set of answers. (Play around with Wolfram Alpha; it’ll blow your mind.)

Today, though, we’re still just drowning in data. The Internet is mostly noise. That’s exactly why the consumer yearns for comprehension. The Internet businesses that innovate in that direction will be the next successes.


Harry Lin is a monthly contributor to the Nightly Business Report; this commentary was originally posted on The NBR Blog.


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