Living in a Library

Nov. 6, 2003
Google hasn't replaced the need for knowledge. But it is a great amplifier of it. A knowledgeable engineering professional who is also comfortable with good Web search practices and tools is a force to be reckoned with!
Blind imbecile
Early (1960's) computer translation of English phrase,
"Out of sight, out of mind," into Russian.

I've been telling my audiences for some time that Google blurs the distinction between information and knowledge. After all, if someone calls me with a question, by accessing a good search engine over a high-bandwidth line I can give them an answer so quickly that they cannot tell I wasn't bringing it out of my own memory.

"Take care not to mislead people," said my wife, N'omi, when she heard me make that claim recently. "Knowledge and information are not the same. Information may become knowledge, but it needs context, integration, and time."

Of course, she is right. Owning an English-Russian dictionary is not at all the same as knowing Russian, as my opening quote illustrates. Words or phrases need a context for proper translation. They need to be integrated with everything else you know—a work of time.

It's the difference between looking something up, and learning something. Having access to a great math library is not the equivalent, in any sense, of knowing calculus. When you study math, internalize its facts, procedures, theorems, and proofs, you are able to solve more and more complex problems—ultimately, you are equipped to extend the boundaries of mathematics, if you go far enough.

On the other hand, there is tremendous benefit to simply being able to look things up quickly. We are far more likely to recognize patterns and make connections among disparate facts if we can get to them quickly. Web-based search engines make that possible for everyone.

Of course, there are great differences among various kinds of knowledge. Knowing "what" is often a matter of having the right information at hand, whether online or in your head. But knowing "how" usually requires experience.

I may quickly find a great Chicken Kiev recipe—indeed, plugging those words into Google gives me 6,010 results. But that doesn't mean I've got a good basis for distinguishing among them; and it certainly doesn't mean that I know how to make Chicken Kiev.

The applications to engineering are evident. It is now, with the help of the Internet, easier than ever to access the words and concepts of almost every field of knowledge. One can quickly learn the history, the key issues, the controversies, and even the humor of a field with which one is completely ignorant very quickly.

So the validation of experience has become more important than ever. For example, you send out a request for proposals. You receive a great one, from an unfamiliar source. Question one: Do they really know what they are talking about? Or are they just great compilers of information?

Sure, these guys wrote a fabulous proposal. But how many people have they ever served in the way they propose serving us? And what do those people say about them?

We read all about a new technology; its many powerful features promise to completely transform the way we do things. Has that promise ever been kept? Or broken? Who has used the new stuff to actually do what it claims? How long has it been in use? What do the users report?

Technology has addicted us to instantaneity. We expect things to happen immediately—unreasonably so, at times. But learning takes time.

"Doctor," said the man whose broken arm was being put in a cast, "when you remove this, will I be able to play the violin?" "I don't see why not," says the doctor, encouragingly. "Gee, that's funny; I never could before," the guy says.

Yes, learning takes time. It takes context. It takes integration of new information with the whole framework of knowledge you've acquired. And for some things, like playing the violin, it takes aptitude, talent, and lots of practice.

In engineering, we need to know things, and we need to work with people who know things. We also need to be able to access lots of information as quickly as possible, and the Internet is a clearly "disruptive" technology for this purpose—"disruptive" in the sense that it radically changes the way we work.

is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Web site:

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