Friday, September 16, 2005

Kevin Kelly's Question Time

Kevin Kelly is one of my favourite writers on modern technology. He wrote a great book some years ago about distributed intelligence, called Out of Control. (Required reading for those acting in The Matrix, apparently.)

KK maintains a Help Wanted website, where he asks readers to provide input to his ongoing projects. Previous requests have generated loads of comments.

On September 9th 2005, KK posted 34 new questions. These questions appear to be of a different logical type to his previous questions, and no comments have been posted yet. Perhaps this new collection leaves people baffled. Here are the first seven questions.


Point north
Point north


What time is sunset today?

Drinking water

Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap.

When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water?

Sea level
How many feet above sea level are you?

Spring wildflowers
What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom here?

Nearest watershed
How far do you have to travel before you reach a different watershed? Can you draw the boundaries of yours?

Reading the whole list of questions, I found myself paying attention not to the different content of each question, but to the shared characteristics of the list as a whole. What do these questions have in common, what is the possible purpose of asking questions like these? Understanding the purpose of the question allows us to judge what would count as a useful answer.

If you tell me that "Sunset today is at 6:45", I can use this information in at least two ways. The first is that if I'm in the same place as you, I know when my sunset is going to be. The second is that I should be able to calculate where you live (or rather a set of points where you might live). But does KK want either of these, or is he after something else entirely?

The juxtaposition of the questions changes the way they are read. KK is acting as the curator of an exhibition, hanging 34 questions in some perhaps carefully chosen sequence on the white walls of his blog.

All of the questions appear to be particular, grounded, local rather than global. So answering the question calls for a different kind of knowledge - know-how rather than know-what.

My hunch is that KK doesn't want an answer like "sunset today is at 6:45". He wants an answer like "I look this up every day in the local paper" or "I watch the behaviour of the birds as dusk approaches." He wants to see how many different ways people may have of grounding themselves in their locality, and perhaps also how many ways they have of failing to ground themselves.

For some of the questions in KK's collection, the particularity in the question is a little weaker. For example, question 4 could be answered in a rather generalized way, about sewage systems in general, rather than the particular sewage system connected to my house. But it would still be less than universal; and if you want to produce a general answer instead of a particular answer, you ought to think about places that don't have sewage systems of that kind, or places like New Orleans where the sewage systems are currently broken.

Of course, these are the kind of questions that many people don't know the answers to, wouldn't how to find out, and would probably say it doesn't really matter anyway. Reading the list made me aware how little I know about my own lived environment. (But in my defence I could draw up a different list of questions, based on those aspects of the environment that I do pay attention to.)

Does it matter? Well, if you live (or lived) in New Orleans, some of KK's questions may now seem rather more important than they did a month ago.

Update Sept 22

A number of comments have now appeared. Many of the answers offer know-how rather than know-that. Among the know-that answers, most of them are pretty useless because they don't locate themselves (perhaps deliberately reflecting the ambiguous context of the question). Some people seem to have regarded the whole thing as some kind of test, focusing their answer not on the question, or how to answer it, but on themselves - their possession of knowledge and ability. I look forward to seeing how KK uses this material.

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