The Beauty of the Dialectical Process

Well, I was pretty hard on Dean Giustini’s BMJ Editorial.

I have believed in the value of the dialectical process since long before I knew there was a term for it and have always believed that honest criticism serves the criticized, the critic, and those witnessing the process.

So I LOVE that Dean decided to specifically address one of my criticisms.

I questioned Dean’s assertion that “Google’s search results are emblematic of an approaching crisis with information overload”.

Dean writes:

Google most certainly is emblematic (a visible symbol) of information overload, and in fact is the information specialist’s laboratory for it.

I see honest disagreement here.

I think Google is emblematic of the way that the clever application of technology overcomes “information overload.” The Web is huge, filled with an insane amount of information that is varyingly good, bad, ugly or [fill in your favorite adjective here]. But if one uses Google to search for Google Scholar Dean, the first four results are about Dean Giustini, the author of the UBC Google Scholar Blog. It took typing three words and I found EXACTLY what I was looking for in about 0.51 seconds. To me, this doesn’t paint an image of Google as a symbol of information overload.

Dean continues:

“It’s well-documented throughout the blogosphere that web 2.0 has resulted in too many RSS feeds, too much data and information from disparate sources with little connection to each other.”

First, there are many popular positions (technical, political, philosophical…) expressed in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) that I believe to be wrong-headed, foolish, unwise or silly. I also believe that decisions based on evidence and direct experience tend to get better results than those built on blogosphere buzz and hearsay.

Second, I’m sincerely flabbergasted to hear a librarian (or any information professional) complain that there is “too much data” or “too many RSS feeds”.

“Web 2.0” doesn’t cause an information glut. What causes an information glut is being an information glutton, taking on more than anyone can reasonably manage. There aren’t too many RSS feeds. Rather, there are users who subscribe to too many RSS feeds. The solution isn’t for less data to exist, the solution is smarter, more selective use of the data. The tools that help us filter and manage the information that we care most about are continuing to improve in power and sophistication.

The feeds I subscribe to are so carefully chosen and filtered that I started to worry about missing out on serendipitous discovery of information I didn’t know I needed. I remedied this by using feeds from the social bookmarking of medical librarians (and other beloved medical/technology information nerds) to keep an eye on what they find interesting. In this way, the tools that Dean sees as contributing to the “information glut” open me up to new ideas, thoughts, and resources that I would otherwise not have found. With the smart use of my aggregator, I can browse these quickly and easily, discarding what doesn’t suit my interests.

Dean also writes:

“99% of the information that we are finding in Google is irrelevant to medicine.”

Sure, but I’ve never heard a single physician claim Google is irrelevant to Medicine. On the contrary, many talk about how frequently they use it. Meanwhile, 99.99% of what’s findable via PubMed is irrelevant to a particular healthcare information need. So what?

Meanwhile, turnabout is absolutely fair play, and Dean reciprocates by sharing some criticism of my own writing. Because I’m really enjoying the direct discussion and believe in the dialectical process, I’m going to address each of his criticisms.

Dean writes:

“If you have some different ideas on where the web is, why don’t you write your own piece?”

I will absolutely be pleased to write an Op-Ed on the Web and health information at the invitation of the first prestigious medical journal which invites me to do so.

I’d might use the opportunity to demystify buzzwords, clear up popular misconceptions and/or call for a new sort of rigor in the way that writers in medicine and libraries use technology buzzwords in order to better empower each other and those whose needs they serve.

I could alternately suggest practical ways in which existing technologies could be leveraged to expand or improve information services for clinical patrons.

Dean writes:

“One thing about David’s blogging is that he doesn’t explore the social or cultural context for all the tools he introduces.”

That’s usually true. After all, I’m neither a sociologist nor a cultural anthropologist.

I usually talk about how Web tools might be applied in the setting of a medical library. That’s sort of what this blog is for- and I’ve said that from the very first post.

I run a hospital library and I solve problems that hospital-based users experience while using technology. I write about the things that interest me and that I think will interest others who do similar work and face similar problems. That’s what defines the general scope of this blog- and I’m happy with it.

Dean writes:

“It’s much harder to place information technologies in some context than it is to merely announce that you’ve found a new tool worth exploring.”

Although I really do think it is important and useful just to share the existence of tools that I think may be of interest or use to other medical libraryfolk, I often provide context. Some examples:

Both Dean and Dr. Ves Dimov (at Clinical Cases and Images) seem to think that I want to replace “Web 2.0” with some other term.

Dr. Dimov writes:

David seems to suggest the alternative term “Web Geekery” which does not sound much better than “Web 2.0.”

I have at no time suggested that my complaints with the (mis)use of “Web 2.0” would be solved by replacing it with ANY other term. “Web Geekery” is just the phrase I use to describe the stuff that interests me.I also refer to the words of smartasses as “smartassery” and refer to the deeds of dumb clucks as “dumbcluckery.” I don’t know why.

I will point out, though, that not a single person has ever needed me to explain what I mean by “Web geekery.”

For the record, Ves- I don’t think there was anything wrong with your description of “Web 2.0 and Medicine” in 2005. You were talking about applying the trends O’Reilly described with “Web 2.0” to the needs of medicine. Still, I dearly hope that many of the current uses of “2.0”, “3.0” and (yes, really!) “Web 4.0” will go away. The metaphor threatens to outgrow and eat what it was supposed to represent.

6 thoughts on “The Beauty of the Dialectical Process

  1. There has always been too much information. It’s only now that we’ve had any simple way of drinking from the firehose. I really liked your point that you can use the tools well or poorly to provide manageable information sources.
    Further, as someone who is the ‘tech guy’ to a group of clerics who are still impressed by email, I use the word “geekery” and everyone knows what I mean. Web 2.0 and they go into “pasted smiles, please stop talking soon” mode. So, maybe you just need to know your audience. 😉

  2. Why does this sound like a discussion that might take place over a few pints of beer? Perhaps that is drinker in me.

    I enjoy hearing both of your points of view. Both of you have a view on things I admit I don’t always see right away. (Perhaps I need to lay of the beer.)

    One note David…
    “I will absolutely be pleased to write an Op-Ed on the Web and health information at the invitation of the first prestigious medical journal which invites me to do so.”

    Don’t wait for somebody to ask, write it and then “shop” it to a journal that would be a good fit.

  3. Michelle, the most enjoyable disagreements I have ever had were with smart people over beer. My best friend in college liked to argue about epistemology over beer and pool.

    Your advice about writing a piece first, then “ahopping” it around is probably a really, really good idea. Thanks so much!

  4. “I will absolutely be pleased to write an Op-Ed on the Web and health information at the invitation of the first prestigious medical journal which invites me to do so.” – Well, I disagree that any writing you want to do on this topic needs to wait for a “prestigious” journal. You have a forum right here, which you seem to be using *right this very minute* to write about web geekery. Go on and use it.

    Also, disagreements over beer = good. Unless your friend is an angry drunk and bad debater. 🙂

  5. Hey David – forgot to mention – you know when I started work on MedWorm, I didn’t know what 2.0 was – guess who first introduced me to the term 😉

  6. Again, I’m not calling for a ban on the term. I’m calling for a sensible use of it.

    If one is hoping to market a tool that leverages the trends O’Reilly describes in his definition, one should absolutely know what the term means and how to use it.

    So…I’m very pleased to have played any role in introducing you to the term. 🙂