Nicholson, P. (2009) Information-rich and attention-poor Globe and Mail, September 12

In one of Canada’s national newspapers, the Globe and Mail, Peter Nicholson, the President of the Council of Canadian Academies (formerly named Academy of Sciences), writes about the impact of new information technology on the nature of knowledge. He makes a number of arguments, among them:

  • increased information load results in reduced time to attend to issues: a shift from depth to speed
  • the deep, integrative mode of knowledge generation is thus being eroded, because speed is ‘rewarded’ more than depth
  • there is a shift of authority from producers of depth (specialists or experts) to the broader public (the cult of the amateur)
  • the source of most ‘nuggets’ of information have tended to come initially from experts (e.g. academics) and gatekeepers (e.g. professional journalists) which are then ‘flowed’ through the system by the more general public (such as this blog, for instance)
  • today’s cult of the amateur will ultimately be self-limiting and require continuous infusions of more traditional forms of expert knowledge
  • the web itself offers the possibilities of providing the ‘missing’ syntheses of new knowledge through the potential of a far more integrated web-based collective intelligence.


Nicholson raises some interesting issues, but I’m not sure of the ‘science’ behind what he says – there was no empirical evidence used to support the arguments, which I would have expected from the President of the Council of Academies. For instance, I see no evidence of academics becoming focused on speed rather than depth.

Nicholson doesn’t spell out the implications of his arguments for post-secondary education. If expertise and depth is still important, how is that to be encouraged and supported in a web-based world? How is that expertise best acquired, disseminated, shared and built upon? What is the role of the academy within the ‘global cyber-nervous system’ of the web?

I raise this question because the driving dynamism of universities these days seems to be towards ever more in-depth expertise, with the focus on research, and the research focus on traditional, discipline-based science. Yet at the same time Nicholson is saying that there is less ‘reward’ for focus-based, in-depth research, because we have too much information and too little time to examine and process it. This may be true for the general public, but is it true for academics in their ivory towers? The danger I see with his argument is that universities need more and more to be ‘edgeless’ and open, in order to acquire, disseminate, and share knowledge, but the need for ‘focus’ and in-depth study also suggests the need for a more cloistered and walled university, to avoid ‘distraction.’ How do we square these two dynamics – or are they false assumptions?

Although I recognise and support the need for in-depth analysis of issues and expertise, what is often forgotten now is that in many countries, more than 50% of the population have some form of post-secondary education, and over 90 per cent complete high school. This may not make us ‘experts’ in everything, but the step to being an ‘expert’ for a majority of people is much shorter than in the days when less than 10 per cent of the population went to university. Thus the gaps between experts and the general public is much less than it used to be.

I know many people have argued that the web will act as the synthesiser of information, but I still struggle to see how this actually happens in the sense of providing in-depth understanding of an issue. What the web does is provide many perspectives, correlations and ratings, but not necessarily synthesis. Indeed, post-modernists would argue that there cannot be synthesis – different understandings must live side by side, each of equal standing. What we are discussing here is the construction of meaning, which in the end has to be personal, not constructed externally by a cyber-network that averages or computes meaning.

So the real question is, how do we find this balance between the exponential growth of information and the ability of individuals to process and analyse this? The web is a wonderful tool to help us do this, but it is surely the task of education to teach the skills of analysis and synthesis of information, or in its true sense, knowledge management. Then individuals can specialise, disseminate, and synthesise, using the web and collaborative learning as essential tools.

See also: Does technology change the nature of knowledge?


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