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The futurist: A liquid network of ideas

Thomas Frey //September 12, 2014//

The futurist: A liquid network of ideas

Thomas Frey //September 12, 2014//

(Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.)

At a recent conference on the “Future of Libraries” put together by the American Library Association at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, I proposed a rather unusual mission for libraries, that of becoming “liquid networks” for our ideas.

Unlike our not-so-distant-past, the world’s most important information is no longer solely in books.

Whenever a great idea forms in our head, we look for a place to put it. Is it something useful, that we can turn into a product, add to a document, tell to our friends, include in a presentation, or attach with magnets to the front of our refrigerator? 

Ideas, much like parasites, need a host. If we don’t manage to gaff them before we slip into our next stream of consciousness, they will be forever lost. Without a host, these squirming little idea-fish will have a very limited shelf life.

If we manage to cluster enough of them together, they have a bit more staying power, but they still need to somehow reach critical mass before they become noteworthy.

In the past we had very few options. We could jot them down in a notebook, mention them to friends, or make a few drawings or sketches. But even then, most ideas died of isolation. We had very few places” to appropriately store these pockets of ingenuity. 

Today our options have grown exponentially and good ideas can now go from zero to Facebook entry in 0.9 seconds. They can be fashioned into tweets, infographics, photos, podcasts, PowerPoints, LinkedIn discussions, Quora forums, YouTube videos, submitted to blogs or turned into interactive charticles.

We literally have thousands of placeholders for our momentary flashes of brilliance. Much like planting seeds into the freshness of damp soil, these memes have the organic potential to spring to life bursting into a colorful bouquet. 

However, even with our very best ways of posting and hosting ideas today, the reality is that most public and private companies tend to have a rather short life expectancy, and some concepts come with a far longer gestation period. That’s where the more stable storehouses of information at public libraries comes into play. 

Archiving Twitter

When the Library of Congress initially took on the task of archiving Twitter in 2010, there were already a daunting 21 billion tweets filled with words, hashtags, geolocation info, and other metadata. Today the Library has access to more than 600 billion tweets. With about half a billion tweets now flowing into the archive daily, the biggest immediate challenge is finding a way to make all this information coherent and usable.

If you think this is out of character for the Library of Congress, I should point out a few of its other unusual collections:

  • 3,530,036 audio materials (discs, tapes, talking books and other recorded formats)
  • 5,507,706 maps
  • 16,816,894 microforms
  • 1,697,513 moving images (film, television broadcasts, DVDs)
  • 6,751,212 items of sheet music
  • 14,472,273 visual materials, as follows:
  • 13,728,116 photographs
  • 104,879 posters
  • 639,278 prints and drawings

The Twitter archive is yet another example of the Library’s commitment to collecting first-person accounts of history. The logical next step will be forming more elaborate “liquid networks” for our ideas, a term first proposed by Steven Johnson, author of the book “Where Good Ideas Come From.”

Creating a Picture of the Bigger Picture

Every social network, discussion forum, or live webcast has become a cosmic breeding ground for “liquid networks” and how ideas often have sex with other ideas. 

So it’s analogous to thought-blocks giving birth to other thought-blocks. Ideas have a way of creating structures in our minds, and these structures become self-assembling and self-constructing in ways that we have never imagined possible.

Our future is being crafted with human genius in an organic sea where the best of the best have a way of rising to the top. 

We have seriously shortened the distance between problems and solutions, pain and comfort, and products and ideas. Over the coming years these timeframes will shrink even further and become far more organic. 

The better we become at filtering the signal to noise ration of human epiphanies and leveraging these storehouses of ideas, the quicker we reach what’s on the other side.