"We are drowning in information but starved of knowledge"
John Naisbitt of Megatrends


Big changes are taking place in the area of information supply and demand. The first big change, which took place quite a while ago, is related to the form information is available in. In the past, paper was the most frequently used media for information, and it still is very popular right now. However, more and more information is available through electronic media.
Other aspects of information that have changed rapidly in the last few years are the amount that it is available in, the number of sources and the ease with which it can be obtained. Expectations are that these developments will carry on into the future.
A third important change is related to the supply and demand of information. Until recently the market for information was driven by supply, and it was fuelled by a relatively small group of suppliers that were easily identifiable. At this moment this situation is changing into a market of a very large scale where it is becoming increasingly difficult to get a clear picture of all the suppliers.

All these changes have an enormous impact on the information market. One of the most important changes is the shift from it being supply-driven to it becoming demand-driven. The number of suppliers has become so high (and this number will get even higher in the future) that the question who is supplying the information has become less important: demand for information is becoming the most important aspect of the information chain.
What's more, information is playing an increasingly important role in our lives, as we are moving towards an information society. [1]  Information has become an instrument, a tool that can be used to solve many problems.



Meeting information demand has become easier on one hand, but has also become more complicated and difficult on the other. Because of the emergence of information sources such as the world-wide computer network called the Internet (the source of information this thesis will focus on primarily) everyone - in principle - can have access to a sheer inexhaustible pool of information. Typically, one would expect that because of this satisfying information demand has become easier.
The sheer endlessness of the information available through the Internet, which at first glance looks like its major strength, is at the same time one of its major weaknesses. The amounts of information that are at your disposal are too vast: information that is being sought is (probably) available somewhere, but often only parts of it can be retrieved, or sometimes nothing can be found at all. To put it more figuratively: the number of needles that can be found has increased, but so has the size of the haystack they are hidden in. The inquirers for information are being confronted with an information overkill.

The current, conventional search methods do not seem to be able to tackle these problems. These methods are based on the principle that it is known which information is available (and which one is not) and where exactly it can be found. To make this possible, large information systems such as databases are supplied with (large) indexes to provide the user with this information. With the aid of such an index one can, at all times, look up whether certain information can or cannot be found in the database, and - if available - where it can be found.

On the Internet (but not just there [2]) this strategy fails completely, the reasons for this being:
The dynamic nature of the Internet itself: there is no central supervision on the growth and development of Internet. Anybody who wants to use it and/or offer information or services on it, is free to do so. This has created a situation where it has become very hard to get a clear picture of the size of the Internet, let alone to make an estimation of the amount of information that is available on or through it;
The dynamic nature of the information on Internet: information that cannot be found today, may become available tomorrow. And the reverse happens too: information that was available, may suddenly disappear without further notice, for instance because an Internet service has stopped its activities, or because information has been moved to a different, unknown location;
The information and information services on the Internet are very heterogeneous: information on the Internet is being offered in many different kinds of formats and in many different ways. This makes it very difficult to search for information automatically, because every information format and every type of information service requires a different approach.

[1] "Information society" or "Information Age" are both terms that are very often used nowadays. The terms are used to denote the period following the "Post-Industrial Age" we are living in right now.
[2] Articles in professional magazines indicate that these problems are not appearing on the Internet only: large companies that own databases with gigabytes of corporate information stored in them (so-called data warehouses), are faced with similar problems. Many managers cannot be sure anymore which information is, and which is not stored in these databases. Combining the stored data to extract valuable information from it (for instance, by discovering interesting patterns in it) is becoming a task that can no longer be carried out by humans alone.

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"Intelligent Software Agents on the Internet" - by Björn Hermans