How flat can you go?

Friday 30 October 2009, 17:37

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor

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'Flat knowledge' - which is nothing to do, incidentally, with Nick Davies' book Flat Earth News - has had a couple of outings now; one in BBC Cardiff and one in Belfast, a minor part of an excellent travelling skills festival called 'New Tools, New Ways of Working' (you can explore it here on the BBC intranet).

You'll have to wait for the book if you want to know exactly what 'flat knowledge' is and why it's utterly transforming journalism ... though Angelique Halliburton has a good summary here - with video.

The idea of 'flat knowledge' first occurred to me five years ago at the World Economic Forum in Davos when the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, predicted that "in ten years time (i.e. by 2014) we will all be able to carry around with us in a device no bigger than an iPod all the knowledge in the world".

Pretty exciting idea ... though Mr Schmidt was too conservative; you can buy exactly that device now, less than five years after his prediction. The current range of 3G 'phones' (who on earth would want to use them for mere phone calls ????) effectively connects you to "all the knowledge in the world", if by that you mean all the stuff that's been written down or recorded in some way.

But it's an idea that gets really, really exciting if you can imagine accessing stored knowledge in the same way you access the knowledge in your own head. Think of the difference between looking up a phone number in a phonebook (how much longer will we doing that?), which is vertical knowledge, and the way you get straight to the number in your head if you happen to know it.

That's flat knowledge - and the way the web's developing all that vertical knowledge that you and me used to have to look up in a book or find in a newspaper is being flattened simply because you, me, anyone can go more or less straight to the thing we want to know, courtesy of increasingly sophisticated searches and increasingly precise metadata..

Once the 'more or less' drops out of that sentence, the world changes. And once Google, Yahoo et al figure how to take you to something that's only just become part of 'what we know' - the so-called 'real-time' web - then the whole meaning of 'knowledge' ... how we acquire it, use it, value it, judge it, add to and finesse it is transformed.

Re-enter Eric Schmidt, with a number of predictions about the next five years on the web - you can watch an interview with him here, recorded at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo Orlando 2009.

 

Or you can read a summary here.

And when someone like the CEO of Google says 'we need to figure out' something - like ranking real-time content and therefore being able to take you and me straight to the bit of it we want, instantly - then figure it out is exactly what they will do.

 

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