Nov 29, 2012

The Internet – information overload, but is it worth anything?


by Chris Vlahonasios

There has been no other time in human history where information has been made so readily available, where a general web search can yield millions of pages of possibilities. Its growth has been exponential, especially since 2000, with its main uses divided into four key areas: commerce, social, education and information. This article is not concerned with the commercial aspect of the Internet, but its contribution to human knowledge and culture. In today’s world the way in which information is being sourced and published has become a major concern, especially in regards to reliability and truth. So, is the Internet a junkyard of information or the ancient Library of Alexandria digitalised?

The big picture in billions of pieces
A cynical view of the Internet and its worth to humanity can be summed up from a line in The Simpsons. In this episode, Lisa went loggerheads with Mr Burns over media control by starting up her own newspaper. Initially losing her fight, she however inspired the town’s people to start self-publishing, in which Homer comments:
See Lisa, instead of one big-shot controlling all the media, now there’s a thousand freaks Xeroxing their worthless opinions.

Although Homer is referring to sole media ownership and its manipulation, this quote is also relevant to the nature of publishing information online. Despite this episode being aired several years prior to the advent of blogs, Facebook and others, does this quote really encapsulate the average Internet contributor – a no-body with nothing important to say?

Everyday millions of tweets are sent around the world tweeting anything and everything from catching the bus to what someone was just thinking. Hundreds of millions of people post pictures and clips of tasteless humour, slander and commit blatant copyright infringement on pages to be seen and ‘liked’. There are countless blogs, which are as easily produced as they are forgotten, publishing opinions by authors with few or no qualifications. Sometimes these remarkable and complex networking systems seem outright mundane and idiotic.

However, before getting too carried away one needs to think a little deeper into why this sort of information is generated. For example, why do people post photos and clips on Facebook to be ‘liked’? What does it matter and who really cares? Perhaps it is because it is the desire of every human to seek approval and acceptance from others. Naturally, individuals feel comforted knowing that they are interacting with others who appreciate the same interests as themselves. By publishing and contributing online that individual is hoping to inspire or enlighten others. So, at face value the basic reasons for sharing online are well intentioned.

Posting the ‘truth’ online: can it be trusted?
The major issue confronting the Internet is misinformation. There are countless examples of information being misrepresented or altered to suit an agenda. In recent years, there was a case where personnel from the Australian Army removed information from a Wikipedia page. Then there are the too many ‘lower-level’ unreported cases of individuals deliberately putting misleading and incorrect information simply as part of a practical joke[1]. Many school teachers and even university lecturers have expressed their dismay at students simply taking information from the Internet, whether it be Wikipedia or unofficial websites and blogs, and quoting ‘facts’ in which the authorship is unspecified and their credentials vague. The Internet can quite possibly provide a worldwide network of ‘dead ends’. So who do you trust?

However, before condoning the Internet, one needs to re-evaluate this notion of ‘trust’. People tend to trust an opinion that is published via conventional means: newspapers, books or broadcasted on television or radio. These traditional means of communication have been a staple for centuries and others only since the 20th century. They are regarded trustworthy because of the logic “they just don’t let anyone on TV”. However, just as people are sceptical of website administrators, should people not feel the same suspicion for those who decide the mainstream news?

When one compares the same story across a range of different media one gets several different stories. One minor story from the early 2000s in Melbourne was regarding new trams from Europe. On one channel it reported the trams were defective and had to be quarantined for several months til fixed; on another channel that news station reported “brand new trams for Melbourneand that it was a great benefit for commuters. End of story. No mention of defects or quarantine. On a more international scale, consider the recent Israel-Gaza 2012 war. One news station (name withheld) reported the war in a very biased manner whilst on a lesser watched news programme a more balanced view was presented. So, who do you trust?

Perhaps it is through perspective – the understanding of things from different view points – something that the Internet prides itself on with its countless sources. Whereas news editors decide how to present stories based on direction from higher executives, the Internet through its various mediums provides everyone the opportunity to contribute information and opinion not because of any financial incentive but for the sake of truth. Without perspective the full truth can never be known and we become victims of propaganda.

A global evil?
Unfortunately, it is true that the Internet has a dark side – a vast labyrinth of shady activities, such as pornography, dangerous ideologies, hate-crimes and cyber-bullying. The Internet has enabled various evils and temptations to become accessible at the fingertips of anyone with a smartphone. One can argue, with strong conviction, that the Internet has enabled not only good but also very bad things to be easily accessible – but, is it really the fault of the Internet?

Perhaps it is the change in social norms. The 20th century has seen a massive shift in peoples’ attitudes towards sexuality, drugs, family values, individualism, commercialism and religion. The Internet did not exist during the Sexual Revolution of the late-1960s or the rapid growth in the illegal drug industry throughout the 1970s-80s. The Internet provides a means to carry the message but it did not create these problems.

On one hand the Internet provides a vast global network for pornography of all types, but would this happen if the core ideologies promoted by Playboy and Hustler magazines of sexual expression existed? What makes a new idea dangerous is the mind of the creator and the imagination of their followers. Such evils have always existed. If someone wanted to learn more about it they would go seek it out, but now this information can be discovered with the click of a mouse.

Level playing field: freedom to the common people
There are still some who see the Internet as an unreliable medium which lacks creditability. However, despite being a recently new form of communication the Internet has perhaps transformed the dynamics of generating information.

The invention of the printing press revolutionised how knowledge and new ideas could be published in large quantities and relatively quickly. Radio and television enable information to be broadcasted to the furthest corners of the global with images and sound. These technologies are regarded as the most reliable and prestigious because the authors need to be ‘qualified’ and ‘recognised leaders’ so as to provide the public a sense of assurance. But, these mediums generate inequality.

Publishing houses do not grant everyone’s the privilege of having their ideas printed. In the early days, just as today, publishing houses still required someone’s work to have ‘wide-appeal’ because, just as today, the goal is to generate profit. This is a disadvantage for an individual who may not have the widely-known credentials of a famous professor, but they might have an idea which could inspire the world; however, if the publisher does not see the value – aka, money – then that idea will be withheld from the world. The major advantage the Internet has given to the public is the ability to express oneself at no cost to the world.

As for major news outlets they can be easily controlled by governments to promote their agenda. Thanks to the Internet the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010, fuelled by social media sites such as Facebook, enabled the people of Egypt to overthrow a government in power for decades – whether this revolution was of any positive benefit is not for discussion in this article. Then, there is the famous example of the modern-day ‘martyr’ for truth – Julian Assange. Thanks to his website WikiLeaks he published hundreds of thousands of classified documents revealing military secrets and government cover-ups. Although too much information to sort through, his purpose was to give the public the complete picture of what government authorities were doing.

The structure of conventional mediums of communication result in a pyramid hierarchy: the owner of the medium dictates to their executives how and what should be published by the writers/creative minds to be feed to the masses. The Internet flattens this pyramid promoting greater tolerance for perspective and knowledge. It provides an opportunity never afforded to so many people ever before – the freedom to inform.

The ancient Web?
But, is the Internet possibly a glutton unto itself, needlessly absorbing both useful and useless information? One needs to go back nearly 2,500 years to gain some perspective about information gathering.

The great Library of Alexandria, based in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria, was a huge vault of knowledge. It contained thousands upon thousands of scrolls on mathematics, astronomy, physics and the works of the great philosophers and writers. This institution was so huge that if an academic required a certain document the young clerk would have to carry behind him a string through the long aisles in case he got lost! But from where did all this information come from?

The Library would also go on well funded trips to the other great centres of learning, such as Athens and Rhodes, to collect books. Also, as part of its collection policy every merchant ship that docked in the city would have to lend all their books and documents to the Library. It would keep the originals, make a copy and give it to the shipmaster before they set sail. The end result was a massive collection of information from the great civilisations of the then-known world. No matter how minor or unimportant the document it was still obtained in case, upon further examination and research, it may provide some important breakthrough or new way of thinking.

Several years ago, there was an excellent documentary about the great Library. Unfortunately, due to a massive fire every scroll in the Library was destroyed. However, an archaeological team based 20-30 kilometres outside the ancient city were surveying a site of a town that existed at the same time as the Library. This town was nothing like Alexandria, but it was large enough to have a large marketplace, buildings for trade and a significant population. Although the town did not have a library like that of Alexandria, the team hoped to possibly find copies of documents from the Library because of the town’s trade and proximity to Alexandria. They did not find poems or documents detailing new possible medical breakthroughs, but they found fragments of personal letters, shopping lists and market invoices – the team was ecstatic! Although these bits of information seem useless, they provided insight into the ordinary lives of these ordinary ancient people. These fragments of parchment connected the present with the past.

The accumulation of information via popular networks
Jump forward to the 21st century, one now has to consider the merit of information generated by the most well-known social network sites. Due to their almost global popularity they have perhaps the greatest influence on the future of humanity’s collection of knowledge.

            Facebook
Facebook is the world’s biggest social network with over 800 million users. Its appeal is the ability for users to post their thoughts, opinions and things of interest whilst letting their ‘friends’ know what they ‘like’. Although it has become an avenue for marketers and corporations to reach consumers, but this medium provides something never thought possible – a network for the global-community. Many have criticised Facebook of being ‘addictive’ and a ‘distraction’ from real-world interaction. Although it can be questioned why people need to know what everyone else is doing, perhaps it is ‘additive’ because it provides an outlet to engage with others outside the monotony of daily life? Is this escapism – yes, but what benefit does it present to the individual?

Depending how one uses Facebook it can be a means staying in touch with real-life friends and loved ones or a network to find friends you may never meet. But what both scenarios provide is the opportunity to learn and be inspired by one another. Posts can be news articles of interest, artistic or musical works, humorous material or spiritual readings which all help mould the character of a human being. In effect, the information posted on Facebook is not so much whether it will benefit the collective, but the individual.

            Twitter
The power of a tweet can be as powerful as a ‘bang’. Tweets about someone waking up, waiting for a bus or what they just ate is trivial-dribble, but what someone is thinking, feeling or wanting at that moment presents a new outlet for the human psyche.

Upon reading tweets there might be some value or at the very least we might derive a better understanding of our fellow human beings. Twitter has taken the two-way conversation and made it global. The real value of Twitter is the exchanging of opinions and web links relevant to a topic. Through this medium one can gain greater insight into a news story because everyone is contributing what they know or discovered. Twitter seeks to engage people and suggest new ideas which can quite possibly spark a new way of thinking. But what is the point of ‘tweeting’ about things with complete strangers? One could view it as a very natural action, like having a friendly conversation with a stranger at the bus stop.

            YouTube
YouTube is the biggest on-demand broadcaster of entertainment, information and educational videos. Although it is littered with short grainy clips of shameful videos – teenagers having a punch-on or celebrities embarrassing themselves – but this medium presents for many the launching pad for greater things. Countless musicians, bands, entertainers and other genuine talent have become famous due to the global-size audience. From filmmakers to political activists, anyone can upload their ‘vision’, make their point and reach huge audiences – never thought possible before.

It also provides a means of preserving knowledge. For example, dance is a form of human expression which cannot be captured in written form. This could be the latest dance technique or black-and-white footage from the early 1900s of an Aboriginal tribe performing a dance-ceremony lost from living memory. YouTube offers a visual database of knowledge for generations to come.

            Wikipedia
If anyone wondered whatever happened to the old, out-of-date-as-soon-as-it-was-published encyclopaedia, the answer is Wikipedia. This website covers virtually every possible topic, famous person and art known to man in all major languages. Thanks to people-power, large amounts of information have been generated and are regularly updated to ensure the integrity of Wikipedia. However, as discussed earlier, there have been many cases of misinformation by malicious people. Although it is regularly checked, it is still vulnerable to abuse. But, most of Wikipedia’s articles do have bookmarks to provide some sort of reassurance. This website is still evolving and still has a long way to prove itself before it can completely replace the bricks-and-mortar libraries of the real-world.

            Blogs
Perhaps one of the greatest contributors to this ‘information overload’ is the humble blog. At no cost and no previous web design experience required, a blogger can produce endless posts of information to fill an entire encyclopaedia. However, the major criticism of the blog is that it allows anyone to set one up and start writing on issues they may have no recognised qualifications. However, some of the greatest minds and inventions have been made by people who were not recognised professionals or professors. Setting egotism aside, what is truly needed to change the world is an inexhaustible keen interest in a field close to one’s heart and a brilliant problem-solving mind. Innovation is fuelled by creative-minds, not leather-bound degrees.

However, it goes without saying that all bloggers should list whatever qualifications they have in order for individuals to decide whether to adopt their opinions. Still, a good idea is a good idea, no matter who the person may be.

Conclusion
To determine the true value of the Internet one has to consider what it really consists of. The Internet can be a place of misleading facts and a place of danger, especially for young, vulnerable minds. However, the Internet has also become a place of great knowledge, both factual and personal information. It gives an individual to opportunity to interact with others as part of a global-community in which to share and learn from others. It grants everyone the opportunity to state their opinions and contribute to important issues. It allows a story to be reported, researched and commented from many points of view. It is a medium which preserves knowledge, especially oral tradition, for future generations. It fuels creativity and an arena for talent to be discovered.

Perhaps the Internet really is a digitalised version of the great Alexandria Library – and more. Both massive networks of information sourced from all around the world and from the best minds, both great and small. However, the Internet has more to offer than the great Library – knowledge in the form of audio, visual and social means. Maybe in a thousand years archaeologists will go through the billions of web pages, tweets and posts left by 21st century people. This is our digital legacy.


[1] In defence of Wikipedia, these cases of malicious misinformation are quite quickly cleaned up thanks to the many users who regularly keep check of pages of interest to them.

2 comments:

Internet Information said...

Good post.. thanks for sharing.. very useful for me i will bookmark this for my future needs. Thanks.

Internet Information

Gwen said...

Doesn't everyone have soemthing to say? Sometimes our thoughts on other people's opinions relate to the value we place on them, whether we agree or not.