Monday, April 16, 2012

Understanding context like we've never understood it before

I've long considered the CNI Membership Meetings one of the most important events on my calendar because I rarely leave them without having a serious "wow" moment.  Such was the most recent meeting in Baltimore during the closing plenary session by Phillip Long of the University of Queensland.  In a few brief moments within the talk about "Key Trends in Teaching & Learning" we were shown some of the research that is happening at the Gallant Laboratory at UC Berkeley.  There they have "modeled brain activity elicited by static visual patterns and have reconstructed these patterns from brain activity" and taken it to the next step" by overcoming some earlier limitations in this research.  What this means is that they've now come to the point where they can "reveal how early visual areas (in the brain) represent the information in movies."   They can now decode what the mind recorded.  This is incredible to watch (there are some additional sample videos at the the website that show what is recorded by the brain and, while some are vague and unfocused, some are reasonably sharp.  Plus, as Phillip Long pointed out: It is early in the process so this will only get better).  

It appears that what the research is showing is what the mind records, not  what was actually shown/seen and therefore is subject to all the twists and turns that humans apply to memory.   That is a fascinating study when done, all by itself (the classic case of five people seeing an event, then recounting it, and all five having variances).    However, the questions that result are major:  Are those memories there even when we can't consciously recall them? Can these be recalled whether you want them to be, or not?  (Think about the implications of that one...).   It raises all kinds of issues ranging from legality to ethics to human-machine interfaces to what it will mean for learning.  

However, as librarians this gives a whole new meaning to providing knowledge with context; a huge differentiator for librarianship when compared to other information and knowledge access  services.   As librarians, we often struggle to make sure library users analyze information and knowledge within the context of the time and knowledge in which it was created.  To now be able to see how visual information is recorded in the mind and to ensure that the context is properly provided and understood will give us some incredible insight into how to provide access to information and knowledge.   (Of course the potential for abuse here is large and will require major new ethical boundaries to be defined and implemented to go with this insight).   

I've discussed information filtering and context and the issues surrounding it in a previous post and those remain valid in this visual environment.  However, what I saw at this CNI meeting means that as a profession, librarianship will need to stay on top of this development because the tentacles of this research reach deep into our work and will have major implications for our future both as providers of access to knowledge but also as participants in the creation of new knowledge.