Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All of human knowledge

In the annual (?) appeal for funding for the Wikimedia Foundation, Jimmy Wales asks us to
Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.
This seems like perfectly fine wording for a fundraising appeal, a decent description of what Wikipedia is about, and a noble ideal to boot. So let's rain on the parade by picking it apart, shall we?

Is it possible, even in principle, to give even one person access to the sum of all human knowledge? Actually, what does "the sum of human knowledge" even mean? Some time ago, I was convinced it was "everything in the encyclopedia". Now I'm not so sure. Wikipedia itself specifically excludes knowledge that isn't "notable" (what did I have for breakfast yesterday?) and "original research" such as tends to creep in as people summarize pieces of articles and draw conclusions from them. It also goes to great lengths to exclude or at least neutralize opinion (POV in the jargon (*)).

In other words, it aims to gather information generally accepted as "known". This is the kind of philosophical quicksand that holds up just fine so long as all you do is walk blithely across it. So let's just walk ...

Assuming there's such a thing as the sum of human knowledge, for some value of "knowledge", could anyone access it? Well, you don't really want to access all of it. You couldn't anyway. You want to be able to access the bit you need at the moment, right then and there.

This runs directly into the limits human bandwidth. Not only is there only so much raw information you can process at one time, there is only so much metadata -- information about what and where other information is -- that you can process at one time. Sure, the knowledge you're looking for is in there, and you have both the careful work of editors and categorizers and the raw horsepower of text search at your disposal. But can you find it? Empirically, the answer so far is "often". I doubt it will ever be "always".

Nonetheless, an unachievable goal is still worth aiming for so long as we produce useful results along the way.

(*) The Wikipedia article on POV contains a very relevant bit of wisdom:

In Thought du Jour Harold Geneen has stated:[1]

The reliability of the person giving you the facts is as important as the facts themselves. Keep in mind that facts are seldom facts, but what people think are facts, heavily tinged with assumptions.

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