The Internet - The pathos of information  (2007.10.1[Mon])


You should have picked the reefs of coral. They're not so beautiful, though...
Innocence by Mamoru Oshii Masamune Shiro

Words like internet may seem somehow out of place appearing in this series of columns, but as they represent media for the transmission of information, they really aren't so different from books. At this point, I suppose that goes without saying. The same could be said for all kinds of published works. You find encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines and scientific textbooks, all in the same place. You find sites that show what researchers are thinking these days, where they share information, even curse and complain, and even textbooks whose copyright has expired are uploaded in their entirety. The works of Haeckel can now be viewed in full online. And the advent of translation software is beginning to make it possible to read (or at least get the gist of) works written in foreign languages, meaning you don't necessarily have to be a dedicated scholar to make the attempt. All of this is to be welcomed, and I myself am grateful to the internet. Of course, there are new types of crimes and trouble that arise with the unimpeded flow of information, but at the end of the day, it really is a wonderful thing. I'm sure anyone who has had the experience of purchasing an armful of heavy books, lugging them home, poring through dictionaries to read them line by line will readily agree. Be it book reading or launching a blog, the net has served to make the information flow visible.

 As I wrote previously, I was a copy demon in my student days, to the extent that the copy fees accumulated by me and a few other students were nearly enough to break the budget for our whole lab. But I've never regretted that. The lab I had entered, Kyoto University Zoology Department Section 1, was headed by Professor Hidaka who taught physiology, and my own mentor, Assistant Professor Tasumi, to whom I am indebted for his teaching in morphology and phylogenetics. In Hidaka's group, there were a number of students interested in ethology, which was very much in vogue at the time (the 1973 Nobel Prize was awarded to Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen for their analysis and understanding of animal behavior) and others who you might call Fabre's disciples carrying on in the grand tradition of insect physiology. In our whole, somewhat quiet lab, I was the only student obsessed with comparative morphology, while others were studying the cladistic approach developed by Willi Hennig in the 1960s. Thinking back, Dr. Tasumi was probably the only one who understood what I was trying to do. In the unique atmosphere at Kyoto U. in the early 1980s I was resolved from the beginning not to worry about what others might think, or more accurately, that I found myself in circumstances that no amount of worrying would fix. Which itself was a bit worrying.

 So I spent my time making copies, reading through them, looking for clues to follow. Back then, you couldn't just call up a PDF and skim over it on your monitor. If I wanted to read a paper, I got on my bicycle and rode over to the library, made a photocopy at the student union, and then rode back to the department. And waiting there, at the end of every paper, was the references list. After a while, these started becoming more interesting than the papers themselves, which tends to be the case for me right up to the present. First I'd start looking for the immediate ancestors of the paper, then in some cases, for its grand- and even great-grandsires. The search would sometimes take on a life of its own, with the number of related papers I needed to read expanding geometrically with each new reference. If you show a student like that even a single paper, things can quickly get out of hand. After a while of doing this, I began to notice that there were some well-known publications that were referenced more frequently. Something akin to the Impact Factors that people make so much noise about these days. I also began to get a sense of the sheer size of the literature I needed to be familiar with, and finally just decided to read every journal in the library. So I holed up with musty volumes of the Journal of Morphology , Anatomical Record and Anatomischer Anzeiger and started reading each from volume 1.

 Fortunately, in anatomy, the figures usually tell the story. So it wasn't so difficult to identify papers that were in line with my own interests or of potential future use. Every time I found one, I would mark it for copying with a post-it note. But there were limits to the Zoological Library collection. It didn't subscribe to every journal, and there were gaps in the volumes it did hold. Issues were often missing. Sometimes the exact ones I was looking for. Of course, national university libraries have to work with limited budgets, and the austerities imposed in the years leading up to and following the Second World War meant that missing volumes was an inevitability, but none of that occurred to me back then. Requesting copies from the national library system was tiresome and time consuming. So if the zoological library didn't have a particular paper, I'd hop on my bike to check the medical library. Then if I couldn't find something in Kyoto, I'd try Tokyo. In this way, I managed to accumulate a collection of about 2,000 publications on anatomy and morphology in my two years as a master's student, but as many of these later contributed to work leading to publications of my own, I can't say that it wasn't time well spent. People would often ask me, Do you really understand all those papers you read? But I've always believed in the power of reading and re-reading, and I find that if you are selective, you will understand what you need to. I would say that a fair number of my own papers could not have been written with confidence if not for those copy-crazy days at university.

 As my collection grew, though, I started to be a bit concerned. My bookshelves were stuffed with binders of photocopied papers, specialist titles, textbooks, and subculture philosophical books with some relation to the field of morphology (from the boom days of the New Academism that had been championed by Akira Asada). But I still had yet to write even a single paper of my own. I felt there was an extreme unbalance in the fact that I was completely absent and unrepresented in the network of information I was tapping into, as if I didn't exist at all. I think that at least part of my trepidation in writing my first paper was a result of my awareness of how that network was structured. I imagined having a similarly sized empty bookcase right next to the one holding all the papers I had copied and read, and using it to hold a copy of each of my own publications. This would give clear picture of my information input/output ratio. When the output shelves are as full as the input ones, you could begin to say that your role in the information ecology had shifted from consumer to producer. I'm not so sure that's an entirely valid analogy, but regardless Ef you look only at scientific or economic impact of the work, the results are guaranteed to frustrate, but I think that an similar pathos drives the young generation that is now filling the internet with their writings today. The fascination with Impact Factors doubtless has the same basic etiology. The internet is an embodiment of human desires seen in the activity of giving and gathering information. You could call it a new species or extreme phenotype of a lineage that emerged with the book, with its ontogeny tracing back to the very first libraries. Humans, like cells, live by virtue of their inputs and outputs. And so the internet already exceeds any anthill in its complexity and scope.