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“State of the Art”? Staying up to date in the digital environment

Thursday, September 27, 2007
12:30 pm


302 Computer Science

Food and discussion begins at 12:30 pm. Everyone invited.

The number of research scholars working simultaneously may arguably have reached some kind of a threshold. John von Neumann did work across computer science, mathematics, and economics, whereas today even (say) cryptogaphers and applied computer security people can live in largely seperate worlds. One reason this has gotten hard is that there are so many more scholars, working on so many more problems. The topical scope with resepect to which a conscientious scholar can be fully informed of the state of the art seems to be shrinking.

Can computers help? Have tools like JSTOR and Arxiv made it possible for people to be aware of more work at once — and thereby increased the efficiency with which scholars can find their way to, and can advance, the knowledge frontier? Could computer tools be used more effectively to solve this problem? Given the increasing importance of information retrieval literacy in scholarship, are we doing enough to train new scholars about how to find old work?

As reading material, see Sven Birkerts’s book The Gutenberg Ellegies.

In particular:

“Once it dawns on us, as it must, that our software will hold all the information we need at ready access, we may very well let it. That is, we may choose to become the technicians of our auxiliary brains, mastering not the information but the retrieval and referencing functions. At a certain point, then, we could become the evolutionary opposites of our forebears, who, lacking external technology, committed everything to memory. If this were to happen, what would be the status of knowing, of being educated? The leader of the electronic tribe would not be the person who knew most, but the one who could execute the broadest range of technical functions. What, I hesitate to ask, would become of the already antiquated notion of wisdom?”