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 20 and who is the founder of the computational engine Mathematica. Described in The Independent on Sunday as "the biggest internet revolution for a generation", Wolfram Alpha claims to be a hugely powerful and sophisticated online computation data engine that retrieves information via the web.
In contrast with the internet trawling Google, Wolfram Alpha has aggregated and curated huge amounts of data from 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 is a taxonomist's wet dream, a computational engine that, in principle, enables us to splice and dice reliable knowledge to our heart's content.
My problem with Wolfram Alpha is that while it all sounded very exciting in theory, it didn't seem to work in practice. Everything I entered into the computational engine – my date of birth, my political ideology, my religion and my football team – resulted in either useless or confusing information or both. Given the massive hype around its launch, I assumed at first that it was me and not Wolfram Alpha at fault. My own scientific ignorance was stopping me realise the power of the latest new new thing.
But belittling myself doesn't come naturally. So I went on to 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 hand-picked crowd. As @ajkeen, 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. It was purely for scientific geeks. It had little value to non-scientists (ie: you and I). The best answer was from noted cartoonist and the author of the hilarious new book Ignore Everybody, Hugh McLeod (@gapingvoid), who tweeted: "Short Answer: Nobody knows."
When nobody knows, nobody cares. Compared with Wolfram Alpha, Twitter is built on radically unsophisticated technology. But it 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 whom I choose to communicate. What's lacking in Wolfram Alpha are similarly transparent human beings.
I wonder if the wise Dr Stephen Wolfram is on Twitter.