And the curious shall lead us

I’ve become pretty adept at tracking mentions of myself and this blog on the web. It’s a shameful sickness – “infowanking” is the clinical term, I believe – but occasionally it does lead me to something new and interesting, like Phil Edwards’s blog Cloud Street. Edwards recently wrote the best description I’ve read about Web 2.0. It begins “Web 2.0 is not a snail,” and, well, it goes from there.

Edwards stopped by Rough Type a few hours ago and scribbled a comment on my post about Google Press Day. It’s such a good comment – addressing Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s radical suggestion that “experts and particularly expertise will transition in our lifetime from learned information to learning information” – that I thought I’d elevate it to posthood:

The idea that willingness-to-learn will replace having-already-learnt as a desirable quality isn’t all that new. One of the more cult-like strands of modern Taylorism is actively dedicated to promoting flexibility and removing expertise (“no heroes”), because if employees aren’t interchangeable resources they can’t be swapped around at will. (Of course, what this means in practice is that expertise/heroism/doing one’s job well isn’t valued, whereas conforming to procedures is.)

On the other hand, I’m struggling to see what this could possibly mean in the field of information – who would the ‘experts’, defined in terms of willingness-to-learn, learn from? It reminds me of the early-ish days of the Web, when it seemed as if there was a page on anything out there somewhere – whether you wanted a Star Trek episode guide, a Beck discography, a Wehrmacht order of battle or a discussion of blotter acid urban legends, you just had to go to Alta Vista and ask (if you had the requisite search fu, that is). How this scales up to the sum of human knowledge I’m not entirely sure, but I suppose that’s what the myth of Wikipedia is about.

5 thoughts on “And the curious shall lead us

  1. Jason Kolb

    Anyone who proclaims themselves an expert at something loses brownie points on my Respect-o-meter. I don’t remember who wrote the quote, but one of my favorites is “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” Great post.

  2. Phil

    Well, well, well! Many thanks.

    (Could I just mention that I’ve never actually searched the Web for an episode guide for ST:TOS? That was just an example.)

  3. Nick Carr

    Yeah, sure.

    By the way, there’s also something of an anachronism in your comment. Since Beck released his first stuff in the mid-90s, you probably wouldn’t have been searching for his discography in the early days of the web. Unless you meant Jeff Beck, which you didn’t.

  4. Phil

    Mmm. Unless I didn’t really mean the early days of the Web. (Full disclosure: I went online for the first time in April 1996.) Well, I did say ‘early-ish’.

  5. JG

    It appears to me from the outside that Google very much subscribes to this.. what does Edwards call it.. modern Taylorism? Check out this post from Google’s director of research, on their hiring strategy:

    That’s why we do all hiring at the company level, not the project level. First we decide which candidates are above the hiring threshold, and then we decide what projects they can best contribute to.

    In other words, flexibility is valued above heroism. Well, I suppose if you asked Google they’d say they want both: Flexible Heroes. But unless I misunderstand, ability to be placed anywhere in the company (flexibility) is at a higher priority than best in class, but only suitable for one type of project (heroism).

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