Question 54 of 365: Why are we digital amnesiacs?

Diagram showing overview of cloud computing in...
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I was going to say that we may be digital goldfish, but then I did a little bit of research and it looks like goldfish have a lot longer memory than we have ever given them credit for (about 3 months for colors and other things). My point actually is that we seem to keep on having the same conversations in new contexts and think that we are making real progress every time. It is like we believe that everything that has come before this particular moment in time doesn’t matter. The problems that we run into and unique, and our solutions are novel.

We state that we are reinventing something, but we frame it in terms of the old thing.

Take cloud computing: We are putting huge amounts of information online for access anywhere. We are accessing web platforms and programs in the cloud that used be housed on our hard drives. We are putting so much together onto the servers belonging to great companies, and we are paying for the right to access it.

We are amnesiacs if we can’t recognize that we are now reliving the days of mainframe computers. We are storing everything on a server in a room somewhere, and we are accessing it via a terminal. Essentially, we are time-sharing (great documentary at MIT labs in 1963)  our files and processing power, and sometimes (see The Fail Whale) not even for as much reliability.

Take “collaborative tools”: We have been talking about participatory culture and the read/write web for a few years now, and in many ways completely oblivious to the fact that collaboration is not something new. We claim that it is a 21st century skill, but people have collaborated beautifully without the need for such a label.

Whiteboards work. Post-it notes work. And the best collaborative tool is a really good conversation. We conveniently forget these are options when we design spaces online.

Take Social Search: This latest version of search is masquerading as something new. We are ready to crown it as the next big thing in vetted information and resources. By simply applying a social process to videos, links, and question asking in general, Social Search is aiming to become the officially sanctioned “Google-killer”.

And yet, people have always been the best vetting mechanism. A person who has the experience to pull resources from everywhere and know which ones will matter most to an individual is always going to do a better job than an algorithm or leveraging a crowd that has no personal investment in the individual seeking knowledge. Truly, the librarian is the original Social Search.

We conveniently forget just how much has already been done and thought. We don’t realize the other iterations of an idea, and we don’t seek them out either. We are happy with our Digital Amnesia because it helps us to consider ourselves as original, even innovative. However, when we are blind to the analog and only care about the digital, we will only be able to make small gains in our organizations and companies. If we can’t truly learn from the past and stand on the shoulders of giants, of what use are we?

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  1. In the spirit of the post, I'm going to refer to Chris referring to Postman rather than try to come up with a new answer. The key here is deciding which we want to tilt at – windmills or dragons. (That last part was me, not Chris or Postman.) Postman talks about transformative technologies vs. additive ones. Much of the duplication comes from our willingness to tilt at the windmills rather than the dragons of transformation.
    This has been going on in the auto industry for years (see every car that wasn't the Prius or _Who Killed the Electric Car?_)
    Everyone is doing something, making something. Everyone is climbing the giant. Some make it to the tops of his feet, look out and think they can see forever. Some make it to his lap, take in the horizon and are sure they've seen farther than any before them. The lucky few make it to the shoulders and truly take in vistas unknown. The problem is – standing on the ground in the crowd, listening to reports coming back – it's difficult to know what to believe. Too often than not, the reports coming from the shoulders describe things so far from what we know, we mistake it for the impossible in favor of those things coming from much closer to what we know.

  2. In a very real sense, I think that the paradox in me wanting a space to bring everyone together to ask authentic questions and me wanting everyone to already know the questions that have been answered before they got there is that iteration isn't always forward progressing.

    Sometimes we need to provide time to go back and iterate on a really bad idea for a while.

  3. In a very real sense, I think that the paradox in me wanting a space to bring everyone together to ask authentic questions and me wanting everyone to already know the questions that have been answered before they got there is that iteration isn't always forward progressing.

    Sometimes we need to provide time to go back and iterate on a really bad idea for a while.

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