Website of Jason Bengtson, MLIS, MA

Jason Bengtson, MLIS, MA

Information Science, for a more interesting future

The Second Great Inversion

After writing systems had been developed, and human beings began to record knowledge, humans lived in a very information poor environment. Little stored information even existed, and what there was had to be carefully protected. As such, the earliest librarians were more like custodians, or caretakers, who worked to protect that stored information for others to use.

Many of these early librarians met with only limited success. The Great Library of Alexandria burned not once, but a number of times. At the time of Chinese unification, many scholars died rather than rewrite histories as demanded by the new emperor. These episodes of "biblioclasm" continue to this day, as invaders and radicals target the stored knowledge and cultural treasures of their enemies.

The First Great Inversion began with Gutenberg and became solidified with the ubiquitousness of the digital computer. As storing information and copying that stored information suddenly became cheaper, the role of information professionals changed radically. While special collections housing information artifacts of historical significance had to be protected, the character of most information work shifted from that of caretaker to pathfinder. Now there was information glut; a veritable embarrassment of information riches. In this environment the difficulty lay in guiding users through the great oceans of informational riches to the information they actually needed. Some information professionals were charged with leading users directly through these waterways. Others were charged with building the waterways themselves; creating new types of descriptive information, storage modalities, and search tools. Many were charged with laboriously assigning the appropriate descriptions to information objects, so that they could be found by those who knew how to navigate the currents, and could locate the canals that led to the right places.

These waters were treacherous. The cheaper the storage of information became, the more dubious became the provenance of much of it. The World Wide Web only exacerbated this problem. With physical copies of information there were clues that, at least much of the time, could aid users in attaching authority to a source. A leather bound volume from a reputable publisher, sitting on the shelf of a library, carried more intrinsic weight than a photocopied manifesto found laying on a chair in a bus station. These clues could sometime be deceptive, and certainly weren't perfect, but they greatly aided users in developing a certain level of sophistication with their sources. The web upended this paradigm completely. All it took was a little skill in web coding to create a website that looked every bit as professional (and sometimes far more professional) than those of Universities or government agencies. Electronic journals of fringe and pseudo science proliferated. With little accountability, a new host of "doctors" and "professors" and "experts" of every stripe laid claim to academic and professional titles that were completely unearned, using them to add consequently unearned authority to their online diatribes. With equal disingenuousness, persons with an advanced degree in one field might use it to speak with authority on another, trusting that their readers wouldn't choose to investigate the alphabet soup of letters following their name to see if it referenced any relevant field of study, or any academic institutions worthy of the moniker.

I first discussed The Second Great Inversion in my paper, "The Semantic Revolution". Throughout most of the First Great Inversion, information was still largely created the same way . . . which is to say that it was directly crafted (usually with some significant labor) by people. People wrote books, articles, blogs, and web pages about their cats. People crafted instructional videos, or films, or music recordings, and shared them (both legally and illegally) apace. But the new capacity created by digital computers, cheap storage, and the world wide web, begged to be used; it cried out to be filled. And so there came new ways to acquire information which required less and less crafting. Tweets could be written in a moment on any smartphone; the same devices which made it possible to snap relatively high quality pictures and annotate them, or even shoot movies. Surveillance cameras proliferated, no longer storing their video on tapes which would be overwritten the next day, but rather sending the data to great warehouses of storage in the "cloud". Gigantic sensor grids could be automated to do the hard work of basic science, generating terabytes of data on a daily basis. The same smartphones which seemed so trite could be harnessed the same way, so that masses of people now tracked the movements of endangered birds, or worked together to capture incidents of government violence against protesters. Smartphones also generated data passively, making it all too easy for governments to track the physical movements and activities of their citizens. Even the processing and refinement of the raw data could be crowdsourced, as cash strapped institutions sought public help in transcribing historic documents, and scientific institutions abandoned by the government obtained vast data processing power under the guise of attractive screen savers.

This resultant new deluge of information, one that easily dwarfs the first, has led to yet another upending of paradigms for information professionals. Now, instead of an inversion from caretakers to pathfinders, the inversion is from pathfinder to commander or to designer. There is simply too much. Too much information to be directly managed by information professionals. Too many new descriptions needing to be crafted and mapped. Too many information objects needing to be categorized, curated, and stored. The ratio of information to people is now staggering . . . even terrifying. And in a world where every piece of information imaginable lies in a jumble at our feet, what we cannot see does not exist. This is information poverty born of mad riches, a problem nearly unimaginable even a hundred years ago. In this environment, information professionals cannot keep pace by finding paths, or even by creating them. Increasingly, they must design and command a new category of automated, digital tools which are capable of scaling to meet this challenge. Tools which can create their own categories and descriptions, and form intricate connections between information objects based on shared characteristics that human curators have completely overlooked. These increasingly intelligent digital servitors will rely on a variety of strategies to provide a scale of information management which can meet the opportunity humanity now faces. But these tools need commanders. And they need people to build them, by deconstructing the ways in which learning happens, language takes shape, cognition evolves, and natural systems self-organize. People who understand that even the smartest of these systems must be led, adjusted, and kept on task to meet the needs of humans.

This is the Second Great Inversion, and it is already here.