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Prescient Postings

Professional wrestler Christopher Benoit killed his wife last month. The police found her body on a Monday. The Wikipedia article on Benoit had already noted his wife's death, 14 hours before the police found her body. Strangeness? Yes, but not prescience. It turns out that a prankster vandalized the Wipedia entry and, purely coincidentally, got it right. Sometimes that happens.

I recall the third time I took college Algebra. (Got an A+ that third time; let's not discuss the first two.) The professor, who already had taken a dislike to my strange questions and comments, asked the young woman sitting beside me to define a "null set" (A set that contains nothing.) The young lady, Laura Stearns, said: "The set of purple cats." I raised my hand and, when called on, said: "Last night I was painting my bookshelves lavender. My cat rolled on a wet shelf. I have a purple cat." The professor was annoyed: "Let's not quibble." If I hadn't previously annoyed her, she might just have said, "Sometimes that happens."

The Wikipedia vandal didn't know something the rest of the world was yet to learn, and my cat had not rolled on the lavender paint because she had intuited my forthcoming need for a purple cat. Those were both coincidence. But the increasing transparency that technology is continuing to create in the previously much denser information world is, among other things, creating situations where we can figure lots of things out that we just could not have figured out before; at least not in time for the knowledge to be useful.

New York Times writer Noam Coeh, writing in "In the Blink of a Byte, Future Becomes Past," quotes experts to make the point that there are two ways, beyond mere coincidence, that the Internet can create the appearance of prescience: seeing into the future.

Some of it is owing purely to the "natural" dissonance and timing differences between traditional communications methods and communication by the Internet. For example, I was following the Bush Administration's DOJ Scandal and had incredible details about it, long before anyone relying on mainstream news, print, or broadcast, would have even known that there was a scandal. But I didn't really have foreknowledge of things that had not yet occurred. The  attempt to politicize the Department of Justice had already taken place and was continuing, and even the obstruction of justice to cover it up was in the past, although not yet "old news," since it was not even traditional news at all, yet.

One of my favorite authors, Arthur C. Clarke also happened to have uttered one of my favorite expressions. It's his Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  That's where "searchonomics" comes in.

There are growing numbers of folks who are getting adept at intuiting where certain kinds of human behaviors are going to increase or decrease by looking at the search patterns and terms of searchers in general. For example, your own student enrollment management folks probably track potential students' interest, as an aggregate and maybe by geographic region, based on visits to various Web pages. But that gives them only the ability to compare your own campus' statistics with similar statistics from the past. They can use that to predict applications, which is useful.

Maybe they would find it useful to have data about the frequency of searches in the various engines of your institution's name, and the names of your competitor institutions? That's the kind of thing searchonomics researchers do.

Ooh, here's my prediction: Although there isn't one now, I predict that there will be a Wikipedia article on searchonomics before the end of July; and I promise not to do it myself.  I think I just made a very crude searchonomic-like prediction.

While waiting for that article to mysteriously appear, remember that if it appears to be prescient, it's probably either searchonomics or a coincidence!

About the Author

About the author: Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). You can contact him through CT's IT Trends forum by clicking here. View more articles by Terry Calhoun.

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