Someday Google (or its successor) will be able to answer that question. It will understand what you’re asking, it will perform relevant searches for old newspaper items, it will sift through the results, it will know (or know how to find out) whether a vole is larger than a ferret, and it will give you an answer. We’ll call it the semantic web.
When the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me for a few hundred words on the defining idea of the next decade, this was the first thing that came to mind. Another was the partial conquest of cognitive bias through better understanding of the systematic ways our brains let us down, together with software designed to compensate for our own mental shortcomings.
What I really wanted to do was ask my blog readers to predict the defining idea of the next decade, with the prospect that I might write about the best of them. But the Chronicle editiors asked me not to do that.
In the end, I went with an old favorite — the beginning of the end of intellectual property law, which, thanks to our increasingly information-based economy (see “semantic web”), stands to hinder progress even more in the future than it has in the past. Readers of my book More Sex is Safer Sex will know that I am particularly enamored of Michael Kremer‘s proposed solution to this problem, and that’s what I ended up writing about.
The other two dozen contributors to the forum had some pretty interesting things to say as well.
So now that this exercise is complete, tell me what we all missed. If I’d been able to ask you before I wrote this piece, what would you have told me to write about? What will be the defining idea of the coming decade?