Expert Voice: David Gelernter on Knowledge Management

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 10-10-2002 Print Email
Computer scientist and entrepreneur David Gelernter believes computers should imitate life. That means rethinking what it means to manage knowledge—and replacing the current PC and Mac desktop with a "narrative structure."

It's an old story: Researchers at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center developed the basic elements of the personal computer graphical user interface—the desktop analogy, the mouse, multiple windows and more—back in the 1970s.

It was first commercialized in 1984 by Apple Computer Inc. in the form of the Macintosh, on which Microsoft Corp. based the desktop analogy for its now ubiquitous Windows operating system. The upshot: Computer users are still heavily dependent on a 30-year-old technology. Aren't there alternatives?

One technologist who believes fervently in alternatives is David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University and a cofounder and chief technologist at Mirror Worlds Technologies Inc. Gelernter and his team have developed a software program intended to revolutionize how personal computers save and display information.

The goal: to present all information—word-processing documents, e-mail, pictures, music, everything—as a stream of time-ordered files that can be reorganized instantly into substreams by topic.

Executive Editor Edward H. Baker recently chatted with Gelernter about the technological and philosophical basis for his software, and his belief that the computing public is being shortchanged by the myopic views of today's post-Internet IT industry.

CIO Insight: The software your company has developed—radical as it is—is usually lumped into the category of knowledge management. Why does knowledge management need to be revamped?

Gelernter: I think the field of knowledge management is struggling to express the fact that it wants to move up an entire conceptual level from where conventional software has pegged it. It doesn't want to deal with traditional operating system ideas of files or even applications or data—or for that matter, information. All this is irrelevant. People want to connect directly at a higher level to the knowledge or the information that defines their lives, and they don't want to be boxed in by an operating system or any particular machine.

In thinking about the term "knowledge management," how do you distinguish between information and knowledge?

Well, it's really an artificial distinction. I think information and knowledge were seized on as an alternative to data and the data processing view of things. But if there is a distinction between information and knowledge, knowledge is supposed to be something at a higher level. Knowledge implies context. You can't have an isolated little tidbit of knowledge. You've got to understand what it's part of, you've got to have some idea of the big picture.

If I'm researching some topic and I come up with 147 isolated tidbits or news stories on Nexis or in e-mails or whatever, in no particular order, I have a bag of random information. But if I take those 147 bits of information and arrange them into a big picture so I understand that first this happened and then that happened and this led to this and then this happened in consequence and in the future we're expecting that, if I arrange those 147 bits and pieces into a narrative or a story that gives me some context, some feel for the big picture, then I've graduated to knowledge.

And yet no one's proposing to call this the Knowledge Age.

No, they sure aren't, and it's a striking fact. If you read the newspapers and see the unfolding story of U.S. intelligence agencies, for example, we are supposedly in the Information Age, and in some ways we are fantastically badly informed. And the reason we're badly informed is that we keep failing to put two plus two together. We keep failing to see the big picture. That's the story of Sept. 11 that emerges as we hear more and more tidbits of information that the FBI had or the CIA had, and the catastrophic tragic failure to put these pieces together and to see the big picture.

These are big issues, but I think many people have this kind of experience on a daily level as we get hit by stuff all the time at a higher and higher rate. We're like asteroids getting showered by little space fragments. I think lots of people have the feeling that it's no gain to them to be hit by more little tidbits and fragments and jagged packages of information if they don't know the big picture, if they can't add it up, if they don't see where it's leading, if they don't understand the story line.

Yet ironically, we have the wrong information structures, the wrong knowledge structures, so increasing the amount of data makes us worse and not better informed, because we're buried under more and more stuff and we have less time to put the pieces together, we have less time to think about it, we have less time to mull over the big picture and let it emerge.

Yes, no one is calling this the Knowledge Age. I think the nation does not feel well informed. I think businesses don't feel well informed. I know individuals don't feel well informed. And it's remarkable that more people aren't asking themselves, "Why is it that in this day and age, when we have access to more data by orders of magnitude than we've ever had before, why don't we feel better informed?"

CIO Insight recently interviewed Etienne Wenger (May 2002), who believes that corporate knowledge arises out of what he calls communities of practice. How does that fit into your view of the knowledge crisis?

I think communities of practice is one way of saying what we've all said repeatedly, which is that the idea of corporate memory or communal memory—a community's joint experience or narrative or history or story—needs to be accessible. We want to take communal memory or corporate memory away from being a sort of vague, poorly defined idea. We want software to support that idea directly.

There's a lot of information—or in a broader sense, a lot of wisdom—in any company's experience or university's experience or department's experience. Mirror Worlds Technologies is a company that's done a bunch of things and learned things and built things and so forth. That's true of the Yale Department of Computer Science and a million other communities and organizations.

Yet we still treat that collective experience and wisdom as a kind of footnote, a negligible commodity that you can use to the extent you can remember it, that new people don't have any access to, that comes and goes as staff come and go. Instead, we should be able to treat it as a fundamental resource and maybe the most important asset that any organization has. And we want to see it. I want to see it as a tangible thing. I want to see it as a narrative on screen, and I want to be able to follow it, and I want to be able to find out what this organization was doing last year at this time, and I want to know what this organization is planning to do next month.



 

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