How Information Seeking Is Changing With The Times

Anuradha Technical Writing
How Information Seeking Is Changing With The Times

This article is a journey on a time-machine to see how the world goes in search of information – where did we get answers to our queries and conundrums in the past, whom do we rely on in the present and what are we likely to do in the future.

So, sit back and enjoy this ride on the information superhighway – across the times !

How Information Seeking Is Changing With The Times - 2000 years ago

Place – India

Conversation excerpts between –

– Emperor Chandra Gupta Maurya of the Maurya dynasty
– Chanakya, his chief advisor and pioneer of political sciences and economics in India

Emperor: “Chanakya, should we trust the messenger who brings an offer of friendship from our neighbouring state?”

Chanakya: “Every neighboring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.”

Sagely words of advice from Chanakya. A frequently quoted political maxim even today!

How Information Seeking Is Changing With The Times - 200 years ago

Place – Chetham’s Library in Manchester, England

Excerpts from written letters exchanged between –

-Karl Marx 
-Friedrich Engels, co-founder of the Marxist theory of Communism with Karl Marx

Engels: “During the last few days I have again spent a good deal of time sitting at the four-sided desk in the alcove where we sat together twenty-four years ago. Old Jones, the Librarian, is still alive but he is very old and no longer active.”

Marx: “I am a machine condemned to devour books.”

In 1845, this library held great significance in Manchester as it was the meeting place of philosophers and social commentators, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The theory of Marxist Communism was said to be born here.

How Information Seeking Is Changing With The Times - 200 years ago

Place: Stanford University, USA

First ever google search –

-Larry Page
-Sergey Brin, Stanford student and co-creator of Google with Larry Page

John Hennessy, currently the president of Stanford and a director of Google, was first shown the search software that they later called Google. He typed in the name “Gerhard Casper”, and instead of getting results for Casper the Friendly Ghost, as he did on AltaVista, up popped links to Gerhard Casper the president of Stanford.

How Information Seeking Is Changing With The Times - Now

In today’s times, we find information searching is characterized by some key phenomenon, which governs the way we look for information, where we look and how much time we spend on it. Some of these characteristics are listed below:

Drop in Attention Span

In the past, cricket matches lasted 5 full days, letters exchanged between friends and family ran into dozens of pages, and there were no “crash courses” to teach vital life skills!

Now –In the digital age, where news is limited to 140 characters and conversations take place in the form of emojis, our attention span has shortened. About 37% of google searchers don’t even click on the links listed, they are happy reading the summary on the search page! Front loading of information is a key technique followed by content providers.

Passive vs Active Information Seeking

Being a passive consumer of information is a trait of the past. Read what is reported in the newspapers, watch only what is broadcast on TV. The consumer did not have a choice.

Now –The explosive combination of the internet and the smartphones has made information consumption a personalized and on-demand experience. Want to watch a baseball match when the whole world is hooked onto the Euro cup football frenzy??No problem. Watch it online!

Sources of Information

Want to know how to get a passport? Rush to the passport office, get in the queue, and the person at the enquiry counter is your only hope. People-centric information seeking. That was a tale of the past.

Now – Simple, login to the government website, read up the FAQs and you are all set. Even better, follow the Whatfix guide on how it’s done! Electronic devices and digital repositories are the new go-to sources when you need information.

Know and use vs use and know

I got a Bluetooth wireless headset recently and handed it over to my father. He spent 1 hour reading the instruction manual before even switching it on. Following the proper operating sequence was a trait of the olden times.

Now –The same headset went to my 6 years old niece later. She just fooled around with the buttons at random and had it running within 5 minutes! Disruptive, trial and error learning methods are more in practice now. They may be quick but not necessarily accurate.

Information neutrality

In the past, access to information needed to be purchased, whether it was a newspaper or a magazine or a technical book. In return, the consumer was guaranteed objective, unbiased, and accurate information. At least that’s what my granddad keeps saying. “In my times, everything was fair and …”

Now – Online content on the internet is almost entirely free of cost for the consumer.With the growth of mass media, advertising has become the most important source of media revenue. But the problem comes when the boundaries between information and advertisement get blurred. “Advertorials” are the in-thing in news portals, “Infomercials” are prime time slot fillers on TV. Search Engine Optimization can ensure your web-site gets a front row seating in google search results, at a not-so-small cost. Small but genuine content / service providers lose out to large corporations, in vying for the consumers’ attention.

Enough of the past.

How Information Seeking Is Changing With The Times - Future

Let me take the creative liberty to crystal gaze into the future now. As I see things progressing, the following trends are only going to continue.

The time lag between information creation and consumption will go on shrinking

Sci-fi Hollywood movies have already been predicting what’s next. Gadgets that read brain waves could transmit information from the creator’s minds, as it is produced. I presume in a couple of decades’ time, movie reviews will be transmitted directly from theatres where the critic is presently watching the movie and forming an opinion!

Information will be more 3D than 2D

From written textual information (1D shall we say?) to 2D video content, the journey has been quite exciting. But what awaits us,is more and more content being generated in 3D. Imagine “How to make lasagna” recipes and “DIY change your car tyre” videos in 3D! That’s the way forward, take it from me. Facebook purchase of Oculus was considered a game changer in this direction, making way for immersive consumer experiences, as though you are part of the scene of action.

Human inference skills take a backseat to computer generated analysis of data

Gadgets ruling our everyday life is an irreversible phenomenon. Kids may not learn multiplication tables of 12 and 13 anymore. Because they are always surrounded by poor digital substitutes for their brains.With massive quantities of raw data being generated in electronic form, making sense  out of it is not left to the human mind anymore. Hadoop, deep packet inspection are replacing the good old system analyst or specialist with a Phd degree! But no amount of artificial intelligence can equal the real one, not in a million years!

The above anecdotes show the metamorphosis of how public information is stored and retrieved. Earlier, the seeker would go in search of a source of knowledge, be it learned men or books. Now the information is at the disposal of the seeker. Tomorrow, the seeker and source of information will merge into one immersive experience.

Before you point out, let me admit I am making liberal use of the words – information, knowledge and data in various contexts.

Not all usages are perfect, as per their definitions. In fact, data and information are as varied as whole wheat grain and pizza! But that’s a lengthy story, let’s leave it for another day…

Like this article? You might also want to check out How Technical Writing Is Changing With The Times

We’ve created a fabulous infographic that sums up the Metamorphosis of Information over the years. Click here to download it.

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Anuradha is a freelance writer cum corporate trainer in the IT / telecom domain with over 20 years experience. She served in senior technical and management positions in Huawei and TCS for 10+ years. Then gave up the traditional corporate ladder to go solo - in order to escape horrendous city traffic and to be her own boss !
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