Eclectic Curiosity

Posted on March 13th, 2003, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

Well, he lives up to his job title as technology forecaster. Paul Saffo wrote this article, Information Surfing, for Personal Computing in 1989. The gist of it is that with new technology has come and over abundance of information. And with this over abundance there has become a strong need for generalists, or information surfers, over specialists. This would seem like common knowledge now but he wrote about it before the internet took off.

An information surfing future will be one of generalists capable of teasing knowledge and understanding out of large information flows. Information surfers will be pattern finders applying new intellectual skills and working in close concert with radically more powerful information tools. Specialists won’t be totally obsolete, but the nature of their work will also change radically.

As exotic as information surfing sounds, it is not without precedent. Our culture has faced information overload on other occasions, and each time the invention of new information tools has in turn triggered new intellectual skills. The emergence of a print culture soon after 1500 is but the most famous example in an intellectual history spanning several millenia. In the mid-1400s, memory was prized as the scholar’s most important intellectual tool, and literacy was but an exotic and secondary skill. But within a century of Gutenberg’s invention, literacy synonymous with scholarship, and the formal arts of memory began a long slide into obscurity. This represented nothing less than a shift from the use of the brain as storage to the brain as a processor of print-based information.

[…] Still, information surfing instincts can have practical value even before an appropriate infrastructure arrives. Just as Exxon’s sluggish bureaucracy was outrun by a creeping oil slick, many corporations are learning that traditional management structures simply cannot cope with events in todays information overloaded, interrupt driven world. Economist Peter Drucker suggests that the result may be an entirely new form of organization which is information-based and organized around supporting small high-performance teams of knowledge professionals. Information surfing organizations are more likely to resemble symphony orchestras than General Motors.

This is commented on, quite accurately I would say, by Azeem Azhar in his March 12th post at his weblog:

Being a generalists can be tough: generalism is something that isn’t often valued by firms because of three pressures. Firm’s processes are so specialised that they need to slot in someone, in Adam Smith’s terms, to hammer the head of the pin. (Ironically, these processes are often designed by generalists). There are more specialists around because of the system that was created by increasing urban density, mass education and rigid command-and-control systems in organisations. This is a perfect substrate for growing specialists, not generalists. Generalists who can, in the words of Jed Bartlett, “see the whole board” can be threatening to specialist managers worried about limited fixed objectives.

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