From a library card to Google: Accessing data anywhere

Research used to be a physically uncomfortable task. I can still work up a sweat just thinking about the public libraries of my childhood. Sweltering places, their ancient air conditioners barely recycling the stale air. Sent to those buildings by some teacher’s idea of education, I’d spend long, hateful afternoons on hard plastic chairs, flipping through dusty encyclopedias as the pencil kept slipping from my sweaty fingers. It was a far cry from the romantic image of oak-paneled book halls where heroic discoveries are struck upon. And don’t get me started about the queue to the copier.

Of course, it’s a different world now. Public libraries might stay afloat thanks to seniors and the perpetual motion of municipal laws. But for us, here in the digital world, information isn’t out there anymore, lurking in a few specific locations with draconian opening hours that you, with your library card and schoolbag, have to reach on foot. It’s all funneled into a single point now, and you’re the one who decides where that point is. Your computer, your tablet, your phone. All the millions of data points that used to float in a complex three-dimensional space have now converged to a single point of infinite mass. And that point is right where you are.

There are obvious benefits. For public-domain information, we no longer waste time on looking for it. For the most part, we take obtaining data for granted. “Just Google it.” Accessing information on the go is so ubiquitous that we forget how incredible it would have seemed to us just two or three decades ago. “What do you mean, I can find out whatever I want, whenever and wherever I want?” No need to ‘leave your ecosystem’, as I did so often in those torturous trips to the neighborhood library.

But the truly incredible thing is that, increasingly, the same holds true for understanding that data. With smart business intelligence, no longer is it just information itself that you can call on at will: now you get research, analysis and even automated suggestions to help lead you to the most relevant insights and people. And you can get it in your hand, on the spot, whenever you need it.

It’s fast data, and fast unpacking of it, right where you are. In the informational pyramid of needs, the most basic need has been fulfilled. So if a couple of decades ago we experienced the revolution of instant information, now we’ve ascended to the next tier. Instant insight frees our hands and our minds to deal with the even-higher task of applying that information.

My mission in those sweaty school-time afternoons was to cull raw data and convert it to insights. But oh, if only I’d waited a couple of decades. I could have really impressed some teachers.

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