Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Joy of Sets

Set Theory was the first disruptive technology I experienced as a boy - perhaps my web diagram to the right was influenced by that? As it turned out sets made binary thinking cool in the new era of computing, as they did holistic thinking in business management. In earth sciences it helped correct the linear thinking of chronologically evenly spaced events, into that of long periods of quiescence punctuated with bursts of evolution or catastrophic events - and now that we look for asteroids and tsunamis in history, we find them galore.

So distruptions are now a fact of life - global warming and credit crunch drove home the fact that disruptions are neither exceptional events nor restricted to small sectors. The internet bubble and ballooning oil prices were not accidents, but rather reflect a fabric of time and space that has yet to be compeletely undestood. I heard "the evil we don't intend we do, and the good we do intend we don't" - that doesn't make us bad, it just says we're human. Likewise disruptive technologies are neither evil nor intentionally so, they just happen as a matter of evolution.

iTunes has turned the sales of music on its ear (pun intended), but that was not against the music establishment - it was Apple's evolution into a new space, away from computers and operating systems, toward a comprehensive system - iTunes, iPod and the internet work in concert (pun also intended), and their second generation iPhone and AppStore parlays that concept even further. That may have been disruptive technology - and a successful one at that - but surely it's also technological evolution.

A lot has also been written about Google being a disruptive technology, in popularising internet searches in the way only the internet and hashing technology could. That has also extended into the geographic arena by popularising map searches and globe visualisations. Any librarian will tell you, however, that searches are a double-edged sword - while they give access with unprecedented ease and breadth, they also allow plagiarism at an unexpected extent. In the mapping arena too, while the internet popularises geospatial searching, does it foster geospatial analysis? Peter Batty righfully points out, however, that the latter is more perception than reality [clarification] by showing that webmaps are doing more and more GIS analysis.

John Sculley also said that "in business perception is reality". In the euphoria of an all open all free internet, perhaps expectations need to be set properly - only then can users' perceptions hope to match providers' reality. IBM once found that users move onto another application if they have to wait for more than ten seconds... yet Apple also found that changing the rotation speed of an icon can alter the perception of the speed of an application! As technology providers we must take steps to manage perceptions of our users - I heard that "free and easy (to access on the net), doesn't make it free (to get) and easy (to provide)".

And you couldn't understand that quote, without context and understanding (added in bracket). Set Theory may have helped break us free of the chain of linear thinking, but holistic thinking that followed is far from providing instant gratification. It presupposed an entire set of knowledge and context, that is sometimes readily made available (as in the city data of Vancouver and Nanaimo, BC, Canada) and sometimes not. And there are many portals by geography (US GOS), agencies (EU INSPIRE) and subject (One Geology). But their implementation and maintenance are not self-evident, especially in terms of policies inside the agencies they apply to.

It is the ready-made examples above, however, that show us the way - the internet allows us to decouple completely that setup and maintenance of complex systems (the providers' reality), from the easy access to the public or whoever each particular clientele may be (the users' perception). As I said earlier, the former can keep GIS under the hood, while the latter can get what they need without worrying about the nitty-gritty. And to echo the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, "[we can] have a dream that the [internet] will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed".

image in public domain