Digitally Mediated Information Services

These are my opinions alone and not necessarily those of my employer... in fact the lawyers would rather I said nothing.

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Location: Tucson, Arizona, United States

I am the Director of the School of Information Resources and Library Science. I am primarily interested in digital data gathering in the field, analysis, synthesis and visualization to impact environmental decision making.

Friday, December 23, 2011

iBiosphere and the taxi driver

Rich Jorgensen's recent post on the iBiosphere Initiative and particularly Nova Spivack's concept of the MetaWeb brings to mind visions of scientific and social collaboration of the past such as universal classification envisioned by Paul Otlet at the beginning of the 20th century or the Memex envisioned by Vannevar Bush in the middle of the century. It may be that we, at last, have the technological infrastructure in place to allow for sharing knowledge more efficiently at the global level to solve critical problems. However, the iBiosphere must be much more inclusive than any of these visions and in particular must include taxi drivers or at least metaphorical taxi drivers.

Rich identifies the life-critical motivation for sharing knowledge at this scale; the perpetual management of the now human dominated biosphere, the living earth. The main thesis is that we need to work together now to understand how the biosphere works or we’ll find we have destroyed it making earth uninhabitable or at least an extremely unpleasant place to live. I would like to add that unlike Spivack’s MetaWeb, Bush’s Memex or H.G. Wells’ World Brain, iBiosphere must connect to taxi drivers to succeed because the biosphere contains many taxi drivers and in particular taxi drivers who are not interested in protecting the biosphere. I agree completely with the need to understand the biosphere, including Rich’s call to use computation, computer networks and networks of people to solve the problem, but I have reservations about convincing the average citizen that humans have the power to destroy the biosphere and that we also have the power to manage the biosphere wisely. Or, from a more positive perspective, we need to make iBiosphere include taxi drivers.

We can call this the taxi driver problem, in recognition of a Dallas taxi driver that made me more aware of the capacity of the average Joe to ignore the obvious. I am not denigrating all taxi drivers. Indeed, there are wise taxi drivers with which some of us have had the privilege of catching a ride. I am only denigrating taxi drivers who spend the day listening to and believing talk radio because it is the easiest thing to do. The Dallas taxi driver does not believe in climate change and at the same time does not believe that humans have anything to do with it. The reasoning being (if “reasoning” is the right word) is that we cannot control the weather, so we cannot cause climate change. His argument was that if we could control weather we would have stopped the tornados this year. That taxi driver and his friends will continue to behave in ways incompatible with survival of the biosphere unless we connect to their daily lives in meaningful ways and solve problems in a way that includes them.

iBiosphere is not only about climate change or deciding the causes but rather about all aspects of the biosphere. iBiosphere can not be the realm of scholars alone but must include all of the biosphere and its inhabitants in a way no other initiative ever has. Taxi drivers do not need to run XSEDE computer grids but the problems of taxi drivers need to inform scientists for both the inputs and outputs of iBiosphere. Luckily, the digital world has permeated all aspects of the taxi driver’s life from his GPS, to his cell phone, to his gas station, to his talk radio station.  iBiosphere must connect to him through his social network. The taxi driver’s daughter may be more open to new ideas and solutions for sustainability and she connects to the driver through chat on his phone. His gas station is run by an the oil executive who may be interested in sustainable profits through alternative energy sources. His radio station hires talk show hosts who attract sponsors. iBiosphere needs to include teenagers, executives, and talk show hosts as well as scientists. We can do this with smart phones, tablet computers, social media, computational modeling, visualization, science television, high school curricula, university extension offices and Arduino boards because they are all part of iBiosphere.