Friday, April 24, 2009

On Closed and Open Sytems

James Burke, the creator and host of Connectio...Image via Wikipedia

I have a couple emails from the James Burke web asking me why all of a sudden there has been this increase in traffic to his YouTube page. I am not sure why they are asking me. But I did recently subscribe and put him on my favorites list. The answer was that recently a couple of educators mentioned on Twitter that his videos were on YouTube and it is a real testament to the power of Twitter that enough people went and subscribed or downloaded the videos enough for someone to notice. James Burke is the journalist/historian that did the BBC show "Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed." I was pleasantly surprised to see how his shows from the late 70s and early 80s held up. The shows were popular and I found them very interesting, informative, and fun. The fact that he could hold the interest of a late teen with a mixture of history and science is a real credit to his work. The principles behind his work still holds up today. His latest project is something he calls the "K-Web" or "Knowledge Web." The K-Web, so far, is a collection of over 200,000 thousand entries in a database of people and technology. All of them are interconnected in time, events and other people and objects. It is like a large encyclopedia of connected information. He is talking to the people who created "TheBrain" mindmapping and presentation software which I think is a terrific piece of programming and a great presentation tool. I have embeded a film below of his description of the project. There are some comments at his YouTube page from a few people who are wondering if this project is still active and I have a few ideas about why it might not be or at least why it might be going slowly. You have a great teacher and communicator (James Burke), a lot of information, and some great tools. The problem is going to come in with the creation of yet another closed information system. My impression of the project (and I hope I am wrong) is that they are creating a dynamic, interconnected encyclopedia. And that is the problem - we don't need another encyclopedia. We don't need another database of information (we have Wikipedia). We don't need another closed commercial project that will separate users and knowledge creators from sharing information. What is really special about the idea of the K-Web is that it implies a set of semantic rules that can show us how information, technology and people are interconnected. And that is exciting. I would be interested in an XML/RDF schema that authors could apply to information (metadata) that databases could then gather and assemble according to programed rules. This is essentially the idea of the semantic web. There is an information entropy in closed systems such as MERLOT (of which I am, nevertheless, a participant and believer) because it needs an easier way for people to connect information with people besides memberships and subscriptions. Projects like the K-Web can be a lens through which we really see and make sense of all of the information. I just hope it doesn't get locked up in commercial software. He says here that he sees it as open to education but I mean open as far as people being able to contribute and edit. I like his criticism of concept mapping as too hierarchical to really represent information.

Note: Occasionally I read criticisms of Burke saying that at times the connections he discusses between ideas, technology, information, and people are superficial. But his philosophy is that we are all interconnected and so we are participating, even in small ways, in all of this knowledge building, creating, and inventing. In the past, some of the smallest interconnections have led to the biggest changes. This is especially true in this age of collaboration and communication.

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