Information Taxonomy

I was recently asked where I get my information from. How do I find out about the latest and greatest research, innovation and technological trends. As with many questions, the best answer is “it depends”. Do I look for information that is in-depth or recent?

If I need to become knowledgeable from scratch, books are my favourite. They are carefully written, properly introduce prerequisite knowledge, treat a topic in-depth and with thoughts well organised. Reading a book can be quite a large time investment, but it definitely saves time compared to having to patch the information therein myself from other sources.

If I need to get an overview of a topic I are unfamiliar with, I made good experience with Wikipedia. Of course, the articles are nowhere near the quality of a book, but they serve as an excellent quick introduction. A word of warning, they are best read with a healthy dose of skepticism.

If I am already familiar with a topic and want to get up to speed, scientific or technical magazine articles are a great tool. They tend to dive directly into the topic, without worrying whether the reader has the necessary prerequisites: I can either understand the article or I am not part of the target audience. If I happen to be part of the target audience, I can enjoy plenty of in-depth argumentation, experimental results and discussions.

Finally, if all I care is to be aware of something, without caring too much about accuracy or precision of information, I resort to social networks and websites. This allows me to get exposed to a large diversity of opinions and work-in-progress, that is not available through my other sources.

Whatever the source of information, good ones stand out as follows:

  • Information is presented hierarchically: I can read the first chapter of a book and get an overview of all the other chapters. I can read the first section of a chapter and I know what the chapter is about. Similarly, I can read only the abstract or only the introduction of an article to get the gist of it. No need to fill my head with information I do not immediately need.

  • Information is linked, both horizontally and vertically: A good scientific article on cloud computing should cite a book on cloud computing. A good book should cite scientific articles it is based on and give references to websites that provide more up-to-date information. Citations and links also offer the possibility to go back and forward in time: What greater problem lead to the motivation of the article? What impact did the article have?

Despite my best efforts to navigate the ocean of knowledge, it is impossible to be aware of everything that is relevant for me. Talking to people, both at conferences and during coffee breaks, fills this gap.

I would like to finish with a call to action: Please stop telling people to “just watch the talk” or “just read the article/book”. If we all watched the same talks and read the same articles, we would collectively cover a very small area of human knowledge. Instead, how about you make an effort and summarise the knowledge that you have acquired to your peers. Together we can “know” vastly more.