What is the future of wisdom on the Internet? Let me offer two quite different versions. The first is scientific wisdom distributed out over the global network by a supposedly super sophisticated computer. The second is wisdom distributed in real-time by a global network of super ordinary human beings. The first is a new Internet service called Wolfram Alpha; the second is the real-time social media network Twitter.
The just launched and hugely hyped Wolfram Alpha is the brainchild of the American based, Eton and Oxford educated Dr Stephen Wolfram, a boy-genius physicist who got his PhD by the time he was twenty and who is the founder of the computational engine Mathematica. Described by no less than the London Independent’s Andrew Johnson as “the biggest internet revolution for a generation” and “an invention that could change the Internet forever”, Wolfram Alpha claims to be a hugely powerful and sophisticated online computation data engine that retrieves information via the worldwide web.
In contrast with the Internet trawling Google, Wolfram Alpha has aggregated and curated huge amounts of data from established offline scientific sources. It’s what Harvard University law professor Jonathan Zittrain calls a “computable almanac”, designed to juxtapose data in myriad ways. Wolfram Alpha then is a taxonomist’s wet dream, a computational engine that, in principle, enables scientists to splice and dice reliable knowledge to their heart’s content.
My problem with Wolfram Alpha is that while it all sounded very exciting in theory, it doesn't appear to work very well in practice. Currently, there's too much Alpha and not enough Wolfram. Everything of importance that I entered into the computational engine -- my date of birth, my ideology, my religion and my football team -- resulted in either useless, self-evident or confusing information. And when I entered all five of these simultaneously, it failed to retrieve me from its computational engine. Given the massive hype around its launch (mostly invented/invited by Wolfram Alpha's PR department), I assumed at first that it was me and not Wolfram Alpha at fault. My own gross scientific ignorance, I assumed, was stopping me realize the full power of the newest new thing that, we've been told, is about to change the Internet forever.
But belittling myself doesn’t come naturally. So I went onto Twitter for a second opinion on Wolfram Alpha. Having experienced the wisdom of Stephen Wolfram’s computational engine, I turned to the wisdom of my handpicked crowd. I tweeted my followers:
“Don't understand Wolfram Alpha…..Is it for real?”
And the replies I got confirmed all my suspicions about the general uselessness of the product. Wolfram Alpha really didn’t work according to almost everyone in my network. Purely designed for scientific geeks, it had little value to general Internet users like you and I. My favorite answer was from Hugh McLeod, the noted cartoonist and author of the hilarious new book Ignore Everybody, who tweeted:
“Short Answer: Nobody knows.”
When nobody knows, nobody cares. Compared with Wolfram Alpha, Twitter – a simple to use instant-messaging network -- is built on radically unsophisticated technology. Yet even today Twitter works as a retriever of wisdom. Instead of a computational engine, it contains a human engine that spits back useful knowledge in real-time from trustworthy people with who I choose to communicate. What’s lacking in Wolfram Alpha are similarly transparent human-beings. I suspect that it's just another of those "transformational products" that everybody will ignore. I wonder if the wise Dr Stephen Wolfram is on Twitter.