Thursday, May 24, 2007


I've been thinking about information for several weeks now.

Today, information is essentially free. And endless.

That may not sound like a big deal if you're still in your twenties, but let me explain what it was like when I was in high school, in the late 1970's.

In the morning, I read the newspaper. In the late afternoon, if I wanted to, I could watch the national news. There were also two thirty-minute local newscasts each day.

That was it.

Those were the news inputs. Sure, we subscribed to magazines, too, but for daily news, those were our only sources.

Do you know what we did if there was a question we couldn't answer and we couldn't find the answer in our encyclopedias? We called the "reference desk" at the library. The nice lady there would try to answer any question you had, even if it took her a while to look something up.

I remember thinking when I was in high school that working at the reference desk would be a great job. Just finding answers all day long.

If I wanted to research a paper for school, I went to the library. Every book in the library had a corresponding information card in the "card catalog." There were racks and racks of cards, indexed by author, title, and subject.

Here, take a look.

So if you were researching something, you'd have to pull out a rack in the card catalog according to the alphabetized subject and flip through the cards. If you got lucky, the title of a book or a brief description would point you in the right direction. Then you had to actually find the book, skim through it, and hope that you'd find some information.

I know what you're thinking about now: you've got to be freaking kidding me.

Plus, the card catalogs had a smell--not a bad smell, but totally distinct. For any of us who cut our chops in that era, I guarantee that any of us would instantly recognize that smell, even today.

This sounds like it took place in the Stone Ages--but it's still how people researched papers all the way through the late 1980's. In other words, in less than twenty years there has been a shocking, disruptive change in how people access information.

Today? Information is a tidal wave. Look at what Geoff Engelstein said in an e-mail to me a few weeks ago:
My kids are thirteen and eleven, and the issue they have when writing a research paper is completely backwards from what we dealt with. The big skill they are learning is what information to dump and what to keep. I well remember the thrill of finding the information I needed for a history paper, after plowing through tons of Tables of Contents and indexes. They don't have that anymore. There is no need for research skills.

We were a generation of information explorers. They are a generation of editors.

I think the idea that one generation had to gather information while the next generation just edits it is a very good example of how seismic the change has been. And even ten years ago, the degree to which information has become available was difficult to envision. Today, the amount of information you can get for free is exponentially larger than what you could pay for twenty years ago. Or ten.

Geoff had e-mailed me about 3-D printers because he works for a custom engineering company, and he correctly pointed out that the hype surrounding them is extreme. These are his comments about the obstacles 3-D printing (also known as "Rapid Prototype" or RP) technology faces:
1. Cost - It's going to be way more expensive to make parts this way, for the forseeable future -- probably forever. Plastic injection molds are expensive, but the parts are dirt cheap, way cheaper than anything you can get out of an RP machine.

2. Physical properties - The materials that produce these parts do not have the physical properties that you need for a durable part. They are basically sintered together, and do not have the strength or flexibility of a true manufactured part. There has been a little bit of improvement in this area over the last decade, but RP parts are very brittle and prone to breakage. You can use them for functional testing only under tightly controlled situations.

3. Accuracy - It's tough to maintain accuracy with an RP part, and most parts have small features. The layer size of 0.010" noted in the article is way too thick -- Yeah, this will improve somewhat, but even the best RP machines today have not advanced much in this area over the last ten years, which also makes it hard to functionally test RP parts.

4. Aesthetics - Parts are built up layer by layer, and they look it. Even high end RP parts that are hand finished (sanded, polished, painted, etc) still have that 'RP' look...Plus you need to sand and paint to finish things off.

Those are all true (and bear watching), but I still think back to information in the 1980's and how much it's changed in two decades, changed beyond even the most optimistic projections of that era.

So if information became essentially unlimited and free in twenty years, how would it change the world over the next twenty years if thousands of tangible "things" became free as well?

I've said this before, but this has to be, by far, the coolest time in history to be alive.

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