Brewster Kahle’s proposition to make all human knowledge available online might be a lofty goal, but as he points out, it is fiscally possible. I think the most interesting implications of this possibility have to do with the way in which people consume information. I think that a public, free database of all human knowledge might change society by creating a quality gradient on the internet and creating a market for digital books.
Digital books might become prevalent on college campuses. Let’s image that every single publication is available online, for free. To start off with, I do not think that people like to read things on the computer screen. This taste might lead to the innovation of a “digital book,” or a portable electronic device that is shaped like a book with digital pages to simulate the experience of curling up with a book. Thanks to “Lumalive” textiles by Phillips, LED technology has been incorporated into fabrics. Although this technology is currently being marketed toward consumer apparels like clothing and furniture, I think the next step might be toward more practical uses. An electronic book would be a great product for students because it would eliminate the physical burden of carrying books. I can imagine a lightweight digital book filled with all of a student’s reading materials that allows the student to highlight sections of text and proceeds to organize these sections in a notes document for studying purposes. Perhaps these notes might be shared online by students as well, and readings from professors downloaded from Blackboard. I can see how libraries may embrace this technology and transform into places incorporating these electronic books.On the other hand, I think this movement to make all human knowledge available online could also render libraries useless. If I can download any and all information that I need from online, and as Kahle says, print a book for only one dollar, why should I go to the library? According to the Digital Library Federation, which has combined digital libraries from universities across the United States, use of print resources, academic reserves, and overall library circulation is declining. At many academic institutions, 75% of students access library resources via the internet without ever going to the library. It is simply easier to use the internet. As Paolo Mangiafico noted, libraries need to be geared more towards connecting people over simply holding information, or they will be rendered useless.
A digital library might create a quality gradient across information on the internet. A published piece of work is more respectable and “legitimate” than a blog or a random website spouting facts. I am thinking of educational resources, however, Kahle proposed to have all human knowledge available online. Do we want all of human knowledge to be available online? Searching through every book, TV show, journal article, and podcast to find one nugget of information might be overwhelming, especially since the net is already encumbered. Currently, the average search engine only crawls across 10% of everything out there, called the “surface web,” leaving the other 90% unsearchable (searchenginewatch.com). This is a problem if students are using search engines as primary sources for information, and they are according to the Digital Library Federation. Of this “surface web,” only 7% of searchable information is appropriate for educational use. Perhaps with a digital library, students might actually find quality information in their internet searches. The key to the success of this initiative is finding the best way to organize and search this information. When this is done, people might find information faster and consume more of it. As James Surowieki noted, exposure to a broad span of information is important to prevent information cascade. If this method of searching for books does not involve the use of what we currently call a search engine, the Googles and Yahoos of the world might incorporate digital library searching into their pages, and further segregate information on the internet.
As a representative college student who strives for efficiency and thoroughness at the same time, having high quality “legitimately published” information at my fingertips is very valuable. Creating a quality gradient of information might make learning more accessible, and finally give the internet some well needed respect.