Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dot Connectors Wanted

I read this past week a fascinating exchange by Shane Harris, author of a new book called The Watchers, and Patrick Radden Keefe. Both of them have covered the various controversies over government spying and data collection, and Harris' book takes a deep look at John Poindexter and the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project that created a stir during the Bush administration.

What struck me, as I read the exchange, was their observation that the government has become good at "collecting the dots", without increasing its ability to connect them. TIA was meant to automate this process to some degree, but when they ran tests on its effectiveness it failed. The job of connecting the dots, it seems, cannot be outsourced to computers, at least not yet.

So that begs the question: are we failing to teach human beings to connect the dots? This seems like one of the basic building blocks of both wisdom and creativity, and yet it is a skill in short supply. Part of the problem, I think, is that people are increasingly encouraged to specialize: don't just know advertising, be a strategic planner. Don't just do advertising, do healthcare advertising. Don't just know healthcare, know oncology. (Just to cite a personal example.) While that intense specialization might help a person find the conventional answers within their space faster and better, it does not help them incorporate new knowledge from other areas that might revolutionize their area of focus.

The explosion of knowledge made possible by the Internet rewarded specialization, as there is just more to know in every field. Yet in many areas, the dot connectors have been left out, and each isolated topic has tapped a lot of the value it can get out of specialization and narrow focus. The dots have been collected, and the future will belong to those people who can take the critical step of connecting them.

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