The Perils of the Information Age

Sean Sands | 10 Sep 2007 17:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

I wonder sometimes if the Information Age is misnamed. There's no question the average person has access to far wider scopes of data than has casually been available ever before, and it seems our capacity for absorbing that data has also never been greater, but it all seems very illusory. With 24-hour news, user aggregated storehouses of knowledge and endless written and video documentation of the world, it may seem strange to reject the notion of the Information Age, but it comes down not to a question of volume but usefulness.

In late August of this year Virgil Smith, a prominent self-described hacker, created the program Wiki Scanner, which links edits within Wikipedia to the sources of those edits. Smith's Wiki Scanner revealed that organizations like Dow Chemical, the Vatican, Wal-Mart, Fox News and Diebold edited their own entries or entries of their competitors to spin information. Political parties were sabotaging one another, governments were protecting damaging information and our media outlets were as biased as we had all feared.

Wikipedia is an immensely useful first step in collecting knowledge, but the fact people are exploiting its open-source nature should have surprised no one. That Electronic Arts pretties up the lawsuits brought against it or that Dow Chemical wouldn't want you to know about what happened in Bhopal is both obvious and a great example of why you should be skeptical of anything derived from a source anyone can edit. Wikipedia is simultaneously an example of how information can be derived from seemingly infinite sources, and how it can also be infected by seemingly infinite sources. In short, it provides a great analog to the internet as a whole.

Is too much information of questionable reliability is really useful? Has the internet really redefined how knowledge is distributed, or are the abuses exposed by Wiki Scanner an online example of the problems we've always had with getting reliable information?

The popular notion is people have more opportunity than ever to stay informed on their world, their community and the people with which they share both. But prior to the internet, people still had access to nearly equal volumes of actual information, even if they didn't have the same magnitude or convenience of sources. I might even be compelled to go so far as to suggest that the overall quality of information before the Information Age might have been better, because, oddly enough, of the reduced sources. It's much easier for the cream to rise to the top, so to speak, when encyclopedic knowledge only comes from encyclopedias. If anything, when everyone and their mother is able to blog news, write pseudo-scholarly articles and create something like documentaries on YouTube, it tends to dull what actual experts have to say. Without consistently reliable sources, data becomes an illusion.

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