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Posted by on Mar 21, 2010

Vannevar Bush, Information Overload, and Scholarship in Developing Nations

Vannevar Bush, as quoted by Levy (PDF), described the notion occurring even in the early part of the 20th century of the various disciplinary silos rising up in higher education as disciplines grew more and more specialized. This seems a natural enough process but it is not a terribly efficient one. This encourages minimal collaboration between the disciplines and essentially means that multiple explorations of the same/similar subject matters will occur, overlap will not germinate across subject matters, and information will not be made available for subsequent researchers trolling over the same ground.

A colleague of mine describes the condition further exacerbated by the digital divide. Dr. Siro Masinde is a renowned botanist from Kenya at the National Museums of Kenya and a colleague here and formerly at Aluka. He has repeatedly described the situation where African researchers, convinced of the uniqueness and/or importance of their research, spend years and years investigating situations that have been addressed in many other instances in different parts of the world. He gives a good, concise presentation here on the internationalization of scholarship. Without a reliable library information network, limited access to both computers and the corresponding journal content transmitted by them, Dr. Masinde described a cycle of wasted intellectual output and funds, redundancy, and limited developmental impact. This was only partly due to the availability of content, but also because of the sheer magnitude of it.

Building upon this notion of information overload (and Dr. Masinde’s point about the inevitable redundancies that occur), Bush more specifically states:

“The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships” (Bush, 88-89, via Levy 239).

Bush implies a call for new ‘means’, new tools to extract the signal from the noise of scholarship, all of which demanding equal attention by its sheer existence. In this day and age, the ability to filter and narrow is as important as it once was to expand and build upon foundational knowledge. His mention of making ‘real use of the record’ is critical to understanding this quote. It is not enough to know of its existence, to understand that someone, somewhere has done research in this field. This is not an academic ante of research bonafides. This is making use of the record by augmenting it, critiquing it and collaborating with it. This is discovery leading to knowledge leading to discovery. It is the purest form of information literacy: an ability to identify a need, find information to address that need, and then analyze and synthesize that information to construct meaning.

In these days of exponential growth in information creation, even an exponential explosion in academic publishing brought upon by different distribution methods and open access journals, understanding what indeed is valid for one’s research purposes is critical. In fact, I would argue that this indeed represents a modern variation of an old literacy: discernment. Discernment generally involved determining the relative worth of a limited number of objects. The modern variant involves determining the relative worth of millions of objects not by the objective worth of the object itself, but rather through reading the markers associated with the object (reverse citation searching, authors citing this item, number of printings, tags, comments, tweets). It is like the study of invisible radiation or radio waves; we know it exists because of its effect on other things.

Modern information retrieval is like that. I can determine its worth by the number, validity and strength of associations with other things. Would Bush consider these indirect methods a paltry upgrade to a larger issue? Perhaps. But like square-rigged ships, they were responses to the particular dynamics of the age. I am concerned with the long tail here, especially as it applies to the situation that Dr. Masinde describes in developing nations. We from existing internet and information cultures have been born to this world, have felt it develop around us over a course of time (however accelerated). Imagine being a researcher where you have just established access to this world (for technological and infrastructure limitations). Where do you start? How do you navigate the markers without an intricate referral system, a network of online associates? You do what you always do, indeed what researchers have always done and continue to do online; you rely on recommendations from colleagues. You remain insular, contained in your disciplinary understanding, almost parochial.

If you want, please feel free to take a look at the presentation itself. As it is from a few years back, some of the data is out of date, but the situation as described for research in developing nations is still problematic.

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  1. Hi,

    Wanting to share this with Ethiopia colleagues, but took me about 1/2 hour to download as Internet is too slow for streaming! Alternatives: audio file & maybe ppt separately?

    But am finding very interesting!


    • Hello there Deborah! Hope all is well in Ethiopia. That sounds like a good idea and I am going to look around to see if I still have the original audio files and slides. It has been awhile since I recorded that (I think it was spring of 2008), but let me see what I can do. I do completely understand the bandwidth issues so no worries there. Always willing to pitch in when possible.

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