Thursday, May 5, 2011

Interrogating the Internet, Part Three: Information

In spite of all the mean things I said about e-commerce in my last post, there is a notable exception to the Internet-as-giant-money-machine routine.  Wikipedia is a free website, a vast and successful experiment in crowd-sourcing, and a remarkable human accomplishment.  While the site still requires money to run, it is the rare enormous non-profit enterprise run truly for the good of mankind, and not for the good of some one man.

Wikipedia is the height of information on the Internet, but it is not the hub, nor is it perfect.  Like any source of information, it is constantly in flux, a battleground for ideology and interpretation.  That scholars often scoff Wikipedia does not make it less valuable, but it does indicate that, especially when highly specialized knowledge is involved, the site might be just as guilty of perpetuating myths or, at least, subtly flawed characterizations of information as it is deserving of praise for striving to make anything and everything available to the curious.  Of course, while the debate continues over Wikipedia's overall fidelity compared to traditional encyclopedias, there is no question that it is more comprehensive and more-userfriendly.  The "wiki" has spread far beyond, and for good reason: behind the specific information presented on the site, there's a process for how to present information that has proven extremely effective.

As I said above, however, Wikipedia is not the hub of information on the Internet, because Google is.  Whereas Wikipedia is a non-profit organization dedicated primarily to providing articles on any and every piece of information available, Google is a for-profit, publicly traded search engine that, some time ago, began to reach far beyond search.  Google's success in part owes to the fact that, when the search engine battleground was still densely populated, Google chose to separate out "sponsored results" from organic ones, giving users the opportunity to make their own decision, rather than being forced towards some marketing campaign by a page worth of disguised but paid-for search results.  Google, internally, put this kind of decision under a broader heading: "don't be evil."

I won't venture into the question of whether Google has become evil, whether it has maintained it's plucky start-up idealism as it has become a publicly traded corporation, slowly but surely taking its place as one of the most successful companies - and certainly the most successful brand - in the world.  Rather, I want wrap up this post by talking about where information fits in the picture of the Internet, in light of the two organizations discussed here.

Can information ever be unbiased?  Probably not.  Any historical event, for example, will have dozens of different interpretations, even at the time that it occurred.  How much more so twenty years later, or a hundred, or a thousand?  What, then, can a provider of information do?  Wikipedia strives for an unbiased account, where possible, but its crowd-sourced mechanism for doing so is susceptible to the tyranny of the masses.  On the other hand, the expert - who pens the Brittanica entry, for example - is liable to skew information in favor of his own perspective, ignoring competing theories or interpretations, even if he does so subconsciously.  Especially troubling is not just interpretation, but hierarchy: not just what happened, but how important any given event - or other piece of information - is might also be debatable, and the cause or result of bias.

The Internet does nothing to change the conundrums of information, it merely makes them more pronounced.  Wikipedia, to my mind, has as good an approach as can be expected: tap into the knowledge of the masses, edit carefully and vigilantly, strive for a lack of bias even when impossible.  As a source for answers to factual questions, there is no better resource in the history of mankind.

Google's approach, meanwhile, is more complex.  As a search engine, it is not actually designed to provide the user information.  Rather, Google connects users with websites, websites which may contain information, but may (and usually do) also contain advertisements, interpretations, arguments, and other kinds of networks.  Google takes minimal responsibility for what you find on the other end of your search, and rightfully so, but it bears remembering that the output part of the search enginge experience is not merely fallible, but often malicious as well.

We might say the same about Wikipedia, of course, if in a different way, because we might say the same about information as a whole.  What the Internet does, I would argue, is that it elevates information by making it so sublimely accessible.  That we can answer almost any question about history, etymology, science, mathematics, sports, weather, or just about anything else almost instantly has made us almost too comfortable with information.  So much of our web-based learning, thanks to Wikipedia and Google, is the transmission and acquisition of information that we might not be doing so well on the critical thinking, interpretation, and creativity side of the equation.

Not that those things don't exist.  Indeed, I have no evidence to suggest that we, as a society or as a world, are any less creative or critical now than we ever have been.  Rather, my point is that, from my own experience, easy availability of information can inspire a kind of intellectual laziness that is far from fatal, but is troubling nonetheless.  Where we should see an opportunity to do more and better critical thinking thanks to the Internet, all-too-often we're satisfied merely to link from one piece of information to the next, as if connections alone comprised analysis.  Society wide, it seems to me that we're more interested in saying what a text (for example) reminds us of or what it resembles than we are in what it means, as if meaning were just another piece of networked information.

What does the Internet do, then?  It makes information readily available to anyone and everyone.  What doesn't it do?  It doesn't assess the validity and uncover the biases of that information, it doesn't interpret it, and it doesn't create meaning.  None of that is troubling, in itself, because those tasks are - to some extend - the exclusive right of the mind.  Rather, what is troubling is that it is so easy to believe that the Internet does assess validity and bias, does interpret, and does create meaning, and, indeed, that it does so better than we can.  Combined, especially, with the obvious but secret fact that the Internet is moved by money, first and foremost, and there is a strong incentive for information to be a commodity, for interpretation and meaning to be bought and sold.

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