September 2008

"The empires of the future are the empires of the mind."

Winston Churchill

We live in an age where the rapid pace of technological innovation and the ability to disseminate knowledge far exceed our capacity to ensure that all members of society receive their benefits. The challenges in providing access to technology have been largely solved in this globally connected world. How to best use that technology to increase social value and alleviate lack of education, poverty, and other societal problems is an ongoing question with no easy answers.

This article explores the challenges for social innovation and the use of information technology. These challenges are: i) access to technology; ii) access to learning; iii) the use of technology in teaching and research; and iv) the establishment of a framework of knowledge.

Access to Technology and Information

Gutenberg's invention of movable type ranks as one of the most significant technological changes in history, making the printed page accessible to all. Yet, in the 15th century this revolution was not broadly experienced. Making paper and printing books was a laborious process restricting the numbers produced. How many people could afford books and, if they could, how many could read? Nonetheless, this innovation opened the door to mass communication.

Today a similar revolution is occurring. Less than 40 years ago, students were producing theses on typewriters and 20 years ago students could not afford individual computers and worked at rather large, chunky machines in the basement of the library. Today, the majority of students arrive at university armed with laptops, desktops, and text messaging devices. In the 1980s, a frequent debate at UNESCO centred on the have/have-not countries' access to information technology (IT). Representatives of African and Latin American nations rued investment in IT as they imagined being left even further behind and excluded from intellectual debate. They argued that in rural locations where there was no electricity, one could hardly run a computer. In villages where people did not have money for shelter, food and clothing, how could anyone even dream of sharing email accounts? Yet, today the use of IT circles the globe. In the desert, yurts prominently feature satellite dishes and sidewalk dwellers in Shanghai have laptops even if they have no plumbing. A foundation in India is working to provide computer access to every village.

The challenge today is not so much access to terminals and technology as to content. If the world's population still includes hundreds of thousands of illiterates, then we have only provided partial access. Like Gutenberg, we can produce texts, but if they cannot be read, will they make a difference? Can we employ technology to teach people reading skills? Can we make people literate in mathematics? Just as children's books were developed to teach reading, would it be possible to employ IT for basic knowledge and skills transfer? Further, can we provide access to knowledge in non-textual formats such as streaming voice and video? Could this be done globally, in every language? Could we equalize basic opportunity around the world?

We experience inequality at home as well. Imagine the works of art, the great scientific inventions, the brilliant and inspiring thoughts and texts we are missing today because entire segments of our population in North America have limited education. Today they might have access to a computer, but we also need to provide learning packages in attractive, usable formats. If we dream of possibilities for the human race, we must include everyone. Only through inclusivity will the potential of humankind be realized.

Nearly 20 years ago, Arthur Cordell proposed a byte tax which could be used to fund global initiatives including the sharing of technology, technical training and skill development, and basic information on issues such as nutrition and health care. Today leaders like Bill Gates have set up foundations that have the capacity to overcome the financial obstacles to this essential effort and to provide the required education. When the first books were printed, the door was opened a bit to the lights of knowledge and information. Today the door to global knowledge is ready to swing wide open with the technology available. It is our responsibility to be sure there is something behind the door and we must begin with the basics.

The Challenge of Discovery and Renewal

While basic training and education must be a worldwide goal, we must also dedicate our minds to the pursuit of new knowledge. We yearn for the excitement of new discoveries, of worlds beyond our ken in space and time, of tiny particles which have incredible power and are capable of changing our lives, of ways to understand each other and to ensure our planet will still support the life of our grandchildren. To fulfill these desires, we must use technology to its best advantage. We must combine the best scientific and creative minds in every field, challenging them to harness the potential of the tools we now possess, to develop new ones and to employ them not only for teaching and the dissemination of information but for the acquisition of knowledge. If writers did not continually create new books, architects new designs, musicians new symphonies, scientists new formulas and engineers new technologies, there would be no need for printing presses or IT. The challenge today is not to continue simply creating new masterpieces but to use IT to create masterpieces of a higher order.

Wisdom is the interpretation of information tested over time through experience and checked against a system of ethical values. Today we have the means to bring together interdisciplinary teams of people combining a broad spectrum of knowledge and telescoping years of data collection into mere mechanical moments. We can advance knowledge and solve problems more quickly and more effectively than ever before.

This attractive option is indeed a challenge. How do we surmount the silos created through our highly specialized educations in set fields? How do we bring together people who work in different academic units and how do we find grants to support their work when granting agencies themselves operate in a structured fashion which often tends to replicate the present rather than encourage innovative efforts? How do we traverse international borders and share information with colleagues? How do we overcome the protectionism of patents and copyrights while preserving the ownership of intellectual property?

Reasons for protecting ownership of intellectual property include wealth, power, and peer recognition. Having an idea does not serve an individual scholar, unless it is shared. If it is shared, will anyone lose? In the capitalist model, the first company to develop the idea and the company producing and marketing it most effectively will profit and share profits with the inventor. If the idea is stolen or if property rights are not respected in the global market, then we all lose because the motivation for some scholars will flag and innovation will slow.

The intellectual sharing model has faculty members offering their discoveries to the world freely. Will scholars be any less motivated to do research if they think they might not strike it rich? One might first ask how many researchers have become truly wealthy and from which discoveries. Why would we want to hide information which might serve our fellow citizens of the world? Why would we not want to work with teams around the world to see those discoveries occur in this lifetime rather than risk not completing the work ourselves? How many authors would prefer to write a book which is never published to one which is published and which inspires lively debate?

The negative answer to all of these questions comes from the source of funding support for research. This determines ownership and demands a proprietary system. If we had international foundations supporting research to be shared globally, we might achieve considerable progress. If the United Nations took on a new role, that of supporting the expansion of knowledge and the sharing of information, perhaps we might change the current paradigm and make significant progress in improving our human condition.

Establishing a Hierarchy of Knowledge

Centuries before Gutenberg, a Chinese Emperor decided to make information available to all his subjects. He created enormous stone stelae on which were etched all the knowledge possessed at that time. The Chinese people could visit this forest of stone and rub the pertinent sections with rice paper, taking home the desired pearls of wisdom. Unfortunately, most of the people could not read. Even worse, the information contained on these great pillars was not organized and one might spend considerable time locating the appropriate bits of advice. While the search engines of today assist somewhat in navigating the incredible amounts of information available on the Internet, it can still be an enormous task to find relevant and high quality information.

It is commonly accepted that knowledge is power. If so, the organization of knowledge and the advancement of the semantic web will equate to mega-power. Teams of computer scientists and librarians are now linking libraries by the Internet and replicating the references from the card catalog. [Editor's note: This seems to be a new iteration of Vannevar Bush's As We May Think.] An incredible opportunity lies before us to undertake a massive project which would involve teams of scholars from every university around the world.

We now have the opportunity to create a new, inter-disciplinary hierarchy of knowledge which will frame the way people think and perceive problems for generations to come. We have before us the technology and the means to do what many companies are currently vying to accomplish. If scholars from around the world undertake the creation of a new hierarchy of information, they would make a truly powerful contribution to the world.

This is the biggest and most exciting challenge we face today. If we give the people of the world not only the means to access information but exciting paths of entry into its secrets, we can change the world. This could be the next major technological revolution, transforming the question of access from an economic issue to one of moral and social justice. We are capable of converting information to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom. This is indeed an exciting prospect and a worthwhile challenge.

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