Do You Know Too Much?

Many wise people have said that more knowledge is always better than less. Advertising guru David Ogilvy once quoted a prominent surgeon as saying, "There isn't much to choose between surgeons in manual dexterity. What distinguishes the great surgeon is that he knows more than other surgeons." Sometimes it's not "more", but rather "different", that makes the difference: Nobel physicist (and space-shuttle failure analyst) Richard Feynman famously explained his reputation for feats of calculus as "my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me."

But is it possible to know too much? Google fellow Amit Singhal was heard last week on National Public Radio describing the role of Star Trek in driving him into research on speech recognition: would Singhal have been so inspired if he'd known that Roger Schank, then at Yale, had been working on natural-language understanding since the 1960s, and had raised his estimate during that time of just how hard it is to do? If Singhal had watched those shows and scoffed at their unrealistic optimism, would he be doing anything today to make the vision real?

The people who write the science fiction that inspires people like Singhal are well aware of the hazards of knowing too much. Author Vernor Vinge has said that while he was in college, with one published story already to his credit, he was "very careful not to learn anything about computers…I wonder if this ignorance was an advantage, saving me from getting lost in the irrelevancies of the moment. After all, I knew where things were ultimately going!" Vinge's story "True Names" amply illustrates that point. In a similar vein, William Gibson (acknowledged coiner of "cyberspace" in a short story that he first read to friends in 1981) was using a typewriter until 1985, and said in 2007: "I'm not an early adopter at all. I'm always quite behind the curve." Gibson's point was that he viewed technology from the perspective of a consumer, not an implementer, with a focus on what he wanted rather than what could readily be done.

As you approach a new application project, what do you know that might get in the way of doing something great? Do you "know" that certain tasks "have to be done inside the firewall"? That's less true now than it was ten years ago, and will be even less true three years from now. Do you "know" that latency makes certain tasks impossible in the cloud? There are people at Akamai, Google and other centers of research who are working on hiding the lightspeed limitation. Do you "know" that enterprise IT insists on maintaining physical control of key IT assets? Will the people in charge after a few more college graduation ceremonies still feel that way? By Christmas Day of 2012, it's my estimate that 3/4 of current cloud skeptics will either have changed their minds or ceased to be in charge.

Agent K got it right, back in 1997: "Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll 'know' tomorrow."

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August 24, 2010