The Quest for Information

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 1994

Each morning I brave the wind, snow, rain, and cold outside my front door in the quest for my daily dosage of information. Accompanied by my two little dogs, I search diligently for the morning newspaper. They always seem to look at me strangely. "Why is that soggy lump of newsprint so important to him?" they seem to be saying to each other. Ignoring the puzzled dogs, my eye sweeps over the front page.

Company X has merged with company Y, the paper says. Company Q has unmerged with company Z, and company E is suing company F over some intellectual property issue. Company D has announced plans to do such and such. Product B seems to be a market success, while product C is a failure. Editorial columns inform me that people are now telecommuting, or they aren't telecommuting, or whatever. Certain things have become fashionable, and others just aren't done anymore. None of this surprises me; I have become inured to the pace and chaos of modern change.

Reaching my office, I survey the accumulated mail, telephone messages, faxes, and email. But appointments and meetings fill my day -- there are people to talk to and places to be. Considering for the moment what my priorities should be, my vision crosses the stack of recent technical journals. I've been meaning to look at them, and now the height and sway of the stack accuses me of obsolescence and incompetence. The urge to push the stack over the edge of my desk nags at me, but I resist.

For just an instant I worry about what is happening to professional life, and what it means to these technical journals. Why has the morning newspaper become so essential, while these journals seem to have become indefinitely postponable? Is it because I have aged and turned to management? Or has the world itself changed in some significant way?

A couple of years ago I was surprised greatly by an internal study at my company that showed that engineers and scientists in the research area were writing technical papers at a rate that had been constant for probably a decade or more. That wasn't the surprising part of the study, however. What surprised me was that engineers outside the research area (the great majority of the engineers) had essentially ceased writing any technical papers whatsoever.

Why had development, systems, and software engineers quit writing technical papers and memoranda? Several reasons were put forward. For one thing, their work had become so proprietary that it could not be shared even with other organizations within their own company. Moreover, the business pressures were such that the engineers all felt that they were too busy to write anything. But even given these constraints, the engineers themselves felt that much of their work was transient in nature. By the time it was written it would be obsolete, or at best unhelpful to others. "Not for archiving," they would say wistfully with an apologetic shake of their head.

It may be that modern engineering is driven by information that is largely ephemeral. I dream enviously of the engineers at the time of Egyptian Kings Ramses N (there were a lot them) in the 12th and 13th centuries BC. When you came up with some new concept then, you called in a scribe. The scribe brought stone tablets, an chisel, and maybe even an architect. The idea had to be written for the ages -- for eternity, perhaps. None of this word processor stuff. In those days when you subscribed to a technical journal, you received a large pile of granite blocks about once a century. The transience of information had yet to be discovered.

Today it seems that time and technology are sweeping by at an ever increasing rate. We used to say that research was aimed at 10 years in the future. Now it is hard to see out two years. You can barely conceive of some new technological idea before seeing an advertisement for some small company that is already marketing something similar. The time horizon moves ever inwards on us, and because of this time contraction, it might be that the traditional publication system is not consistent with the pace of today's environment.

The nearing horizon is but one change. It also seems as if technology itself has become inseparable from business events and social trends. Cataclysmic events like the merger of giant corporations, or the failure of a high-tech firm to make the expected quarterly return (the irony of the comparability of these events!) cause abrupt turns in technology and in the professional practice of engineering. It is hard to believe that technology was ever a world separate in itself, but now engineering news is big business, and big business news controls the future of technology.

Where do we get information in a world filled with fleeting snippets of perishable intelligence and wisdom? Probably the best answer lies in networking -- interacting with other people to share information, while in the process creating the information itself. So how do you get information? Talk to other people. Back in the old days that was difficult, but first the commercial airlines and now the electronic networks have changed the means of networking. It's easier now, but it is also so much more necessary. The pressure is on. You can spend full time networking, not be able to do anything else, and still not know what is going on.

The rule of life in gathering information is to keep moving. Move in space, time, and media. The electronic networks buzz with this ephemeral information. There is nary a stone tablet in sight. The networks are alive with the sound of technology being created. They seem attuned with the pace of today, both in the speed of delivery and in the nuance of transience and perishability of the information being conveyed.

However, my guilt is overtaking me. I am reaching for those journals. I ache for archival substance.

I am having difficulties. Are these, perhaps, written in hieroglyphics?

Robert W. Lucky