Monday, June 21, 2010

Pew Internet Survey of Experts: "Rendering of Knowledge" is Changing

by Jeff Stanger

I was intrigued by a report put out by the Pew Internet Project back in February (Future of the Internet IV, February 19, 2010) and recently discussed as part of Digital Capital Week.

In particular, I like Pew's use of the phrase "rendering of knowledge." I'll commandeer it as a fantastic way to express a central component of what the Center for Digital Information is all about: how people who find things out (researchers) go about telling other people about it (the process of creating information; aka the "rendering of knowledge").

Lee Rainie, who I'm grateful to have as an advisor to CDI, noted in his presentation at Digital Capital Week that 69% of the experts surveyed for the report agreed that by 2020, the Internet will have improved the "rendering of knowledge." One of the themes he points out is that "networked information [is] changing the creation and consumption process."

But this train has left the station without the policy research community, one that creates and disseminates a vast amount of incredibly important information. Policy researchers haven't changed their products much at all in the first fifteen years of widespread use of the Internet. They still employ static, print-based modes of rendering — reports, white papers, articles, fact sheets, issue briefs, press releases — 98% of the time. For one of our most important sources of critical information — think tanks, government agencies, NGOs and educational institutions whose findings are relied upon to make consequential policy decisions — new technology is still viewed (or used anyway) as merely a distribution channel, not a medium that requires a fundamental rethinking of how information is communicated.

Read my posts Digital Distribution vs. Digital Information and CDI Pilot Study Shows Digital Information Lagging for more information.

The Pew Internet study is full of important insights from experts on where "rendering of knowledge" is headed. I've highlighted some important ones below. I believe policy researchers need to recognize and adjust to the trends these experts describe.

Some kinds of expression will "lose." Others will "win."

"This is a distinction without a metric. I think long-form expressive fiction will suffer (though this suffering has been more or less constant since the invention of radio) while all numeric and graphic forms of rendering knowledge, from the creation and use of databases to all forms of visual display of data will be in a golden age, with ordinary non-fiction writing getting a modest boost. So, English majors lose, engineering wins, and what looks like an Up or Down question says more about the demographic of the answerer than any prediction of the future." - Clay Shirky, professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program, New York University

Reading and writing will be different in 10 years. Language has always evolved to embrace new realities and it is evolving now. There will be a new fluidity in media creation. Visual representations and story telling will be important in new ways, so "screen" literacy will emerge.

"The Internet will drive a clear and probably irreversible shift from written media to visual media. Expressing ideas in the future will just as likely involve creating a simulation as writing an expository essay. Whether that will make our renderings of knowledge less intelligent is unclear, but I think its likely that there are tremendous opportunities to enhance it. For instance, would it be more intelligent to render our knowledge of politics in Ancient Egypt as a book-length essay or a realistic, interactive role-playing simulation?" - Anthony Townsend, research director, Institute for the Future

A fourth "R" will be added to the basic learned skills of "reading, 'ritin, ;'rithmatic": Retrieval. Maybe the ability to write computer code will be a necessary literacy. Maybe it will be the ability to write smart search queries.

"I used to bemoan the lost epistolary art however with the benefit of time I have come to understand that there is far greater benefit to an engaged/active consumption of media (as opposed to the passive consumption of the past). As media becomes more socialized and we are all required to be active consumers, producers etc. there is an inherent need for us to have a heightened and enhanced comprehension, a concise and disciplined writing form and a more universal lens. As Udi Manber of Google extolled, the four R's will become reading, writing, arithmetic, and retrieval. The web will be that interactive mechanism that allows this improvement for these basic human skills." - Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of communications, Skype

"The kind of literacy gained by exposure to technology and the internet is becoming increasingly necessary and nuanced, but not in ways that will likely please grammaticians. Instead, the rules of languages are being rewritten by what our devices facilitate and make easy — from being able to achieve spelling proficiency by relying on spellcheck to inventing entirely new syntax for presenting a message (from emoticons to hashtags). One question is whether code will become a form of literature unto itself. While it seems the provenance of engineers and developers today, nothing is to say that making it through high school won't require fluency in HTML or JavaScript rather than French (remember, Google will translate for you in real-time). And if code is one of the most direct means to express an idea, perhaps it will become a unifying, albeit fairly unromantic, language of the ages." - Chris Messina, CEO, Citizen Agency, internet consultancy

"We will redefine what we mean by reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge. Writing may be making videos. Reading may be parsing data or constructing better queries. How we teach the skills of acquiring, analyzing, and sharing information will have to change." - Jeff Jarvis, prominent blogger, professor, City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism

The complete results of Pew's survey are available at

Comments welcome...