There is a more distinctly human dimension to the crisis of complexity that I wrote about last time, but I’m not as confident making declarations about it. The more technical, methodological questions I have long, tedious arguments about – people are trickier.
What I have in mind is: How do you get people sharing knowledge in the right ways? For centuries, the problem was getting enough knowledge passed from person to person. In some forms, that problem still exists. But there is also a new problem. Now (and by now I mean the last few decades, a century at the most) we’re faced with too much knowledge.
I purposefully don’t say “too much information”, because that word has taken on too much, and information is too cheap. There certainly is more data crashing around the globe than there ever was before, but almost all of it is not practically important. And furthermore, we have some exceptionally good methods for sorting relevant information from irrelevant. Anyone who has spent even a short time with Google cannot help but be impressed with this. No, the problem is more insidious than that. There is too much relevant information – too much that we really ought to know.
My encounter with this problem has mainly been through a Research Assistant job I did back in 2009. I was handed off by the professor to a friend of his, a global health researcher. This gentleman explained to me his idea for a collaborative tool, a kind of knowledge base that would go online to help Canadian global health researchers work together more effectively. A few of the big Canadian funding agencies were on board. I was tasked with part of the initial assessment – I was to pick a few low-to-middle-income countries, and put together some kind of survey of who was doing health research there. Easy, right?
During my initial research, I quickly came across the CCGHR, the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research. Their mandate was to do exactly what I was tasked with – to facilitate coordination and collaboration between global health researchers in Canada. How exciting! They had even done a similar project, their Country Focus Strategy. It had been, as far as I could tell, a disaster. They had a low response rate, and ended up with more or less nothing useful. How the hell was I supposed to do better?
I liked this project, and really wanted to do something useful to move it forward. As I saw it, this was the practical version of my questions about emergence and complexity. How do you bring a group of people together in such a way that their knowledge becomes more than the sum of its parts? We have all seen it happen – online forums dot the landscape of the internet, where people spontaneously come together, organize themselves into little knowledge-hierarchies (newbs are quickly separated from old-hands) and information and skills are effectively disseminated. Setting up a forum seemed to me a low-cost, high-yield way of getting people together.
Of course, as Dilbert helpfully explains, it doesn’t work that way in a professional environment. As I got deeper into researching the idea of a professional forum, I found a sad, sad thing. The web is littered with the decaying husks of empty professional fora. Some kind-hearted soul like myself thought that, if only people had the chance they’d start sharing ideas right away, and poured a few thousand dollars of someone’s money into a slick custom interface. Then, they made one or two optimistic posts like “Well here we are! Pretty soon this site is going to be full of people sharing this and that!”. And that was back in 2008, and no one has posted anything since. There’s nothing sadder than a failed, empty forum.
I spent a year or so trying to pin down what magic it is that makes some forums flourish and others die. Clay Shirky’s excellent book Cognitive Surplus (he did a TED talk here) gave me some clues. For one, participation must be voluntary. As soon as you make it an assigned task, people will put in the minimum effort that they can. People need to feel a sense of ownership of the project, or else they simply won’t engage with it in the same way. But that means that if a forum is to be an effective collaborative tool, it needs to be, in a very concrete sense, self-organized. I was shocked, but my interesting, human-scale research had come around and made contact with my boring, technical research.
I have to admit, I don’t know what to do with all this. I don’t think I pinned down the magic ingredient for successful collaboration (if I had, I would have bottled and branded it by now, and would be selling it to the highest bidder). I guess what I found was that there is no magic ingredient, in the same sense that there is no vital force or mysterious organizing power behind self-organized convection. If you want to make it happen, the only way to do it is to set up the boundary conditions properly, and wait. It’s perhaps more like gardening than engineering.
There is a more immediate instance of this human problem of complexity in my life. I study at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. If that sounds to you like too many conjunctions for the title of anything useful, you may have put your finger on the problem. It’s a lifelong project to learn how to be a good Historian – you have to learn other languages, immerse yourself in a period or theme, and read mountains of primary sources. It’s also a lifelong project to become a good philosopher. Hell, just getting a grip on Kant is a lifelong project, and he’s only one of many thinkers that a philosopher worth anything will have a mastery of. Furthermore, its a lifelong project to master any one of the sciences! And we at the Institute are being asked to do all three – to be Historians and Philosophers of Science. It’s an impossible problem. There is no way to do it, yet we do.
Furthermore, there need to be people like us. The crisis is that we have mountains of knowledge, but no idea how to put it all together. If no one does that liminal work, the efforts of the 20th century to stack up more and more knowledge about the world will be for nothing. It needs to be integrated into a meaningful whole if knowledge is to function as a basis for action. But for that to happen, we need to solve the impossible problem, and make the whole more than the sum of its parts.