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An information overload
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Forsyth County News
I am sure that historians will look back at the period starting about 1980 and extending to the present as one of the most significant in development of the human race. It has brought about an enormous transformation in the way we deal with information and how we communicate.

The Iron Age, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution -- all occurred over generations. The proliferation of computers, the growth of the Internet and the spread of all the take-it-with-you devices have changed the world significantly in just a few decades. We are just starting to understand the implications. It’s worth spending a few minutes to look at the impact on how we deal with data.

The development of modern science, going back to the 1600s, owes much of its progress to the ability of individuals to build upon the work of others. Previously, collaborative effort and information sharing were severely restricted. The printed word allowed building upon the ideas of those who came before. But it was a slow process, limited by geography (e.g. European developments were totally distinct from those in the orient), and much of the interaction which took place was based upon personal relationships and interaction within a few universities and societies that had been formed.

Skip to today. Google almost any subject and you may find hundreds of thousands of references. How does one deal with all this information?
It’s like the fisherman who had so many lures he spent the entire day sorting through them and never got to fish. There are parallels with today’s information environment. One issue relates to categorization. The information has to be organized so that it can be dealt with. Large libraries learned this long ago, and classification systems (e.g. the Dewey Decimal) were developed to allow one to find things quickly. But placing a book in the wrong location is as good as destroying the data. The information may still be there, but it’s inaccessible.

As more and more information appears on the Internet, the difficulty of finding what you want becomes more challenging. Unlike library books, we don’t have effective systems to cull data, particularly where the number of possible topics is enormous. Search engines contain tools to narrow things down, but “narrowing” is a relative term -- and the number of options that remain after “narrowing” can still be daunting.

I have little doubt that the benefits of having access to all this data far outweigh the difficulty of sorting through what is out there. The main issue comes from a related aspect of the Internet. Everyone in the world can access it and place on it what they wish. This has both positive and negative aspects.

How do you know the data you have is accurate? In the past, the reputation of the author or the publisher largely carried the day. Encyclopedias were carefully developed and for a long while, Britannica became a world-accepted standard. It maintains its standards through laborious and expensive efforts to assure accuracy. Wikipedia, on the other hand, relies on the input from millions of people who use it. Numerous tests comparing the two seem to indicate little if any difference in the validity of the data they supply -- score one for “broad accessibility.”  

But the downside is the enormous amount of “garbage” on the Internet, much of it written in ways that make it extremely difficult for lay people to validate. Some comes from people who believe they are correct when they are wrong. But much is more sinister. The anonymity of the Internet has given rise to a large number of people who spend substantial efforts to create entries designed to deceive and mislead. The number of specious e-mails that circulate and are forwarded on without any analysis is incredible. The fact that a search will often lead to information without attribution raises major questions of veracity. The Internet can give the appearance of equal weight to the speculations of a third grade student, a malicious individual who intentionally distorts facts, or a world renowned scientist.

As previously mentioned, when printed media still served as the primary communications medium, publishers took pains to assure accuracy. Partly this was based on fear of lawsuits, but reputation was key. Sadly, much of that has gone today. In 1996, after fierce legal battles, the Communications Decency Act defined Internet providers as distinct from publishers, and not responsible for the content that is posted on their sites (note the current controversy over Craigslist’s adult services listings). Although most media rely on their reputations to attract viewers/listeners/readers/users little is done to control any false claims made, particularly by money-paying advertisers. And, on a broader level, we seem much more willing to accept lies, whether political or commercial in nature.

The situation becomes every murkier in matters that sometimes involve life and death decisions. There is great controversy over government practices and the influence of special interest groups regarding various types of medical treatments, many of which are accepted elsewhere but prohibited in the United States. The Internet is the main source of information for many seeking information on these alternatives. But it is an extreme case of “caveat emptor.” The accurate information is mixed with the false, and this becomes a fertile hunting ground for predators.
Again, particularly for the lay person, it is extremely difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The Internet is an incredible resource. But it could be made so much better if there were more effective ways to organize data and to vet that data. Perhaps there is a lesson to be taken from Wikipedia -- for example, to ask everyone who views a particular site to rate it on a 1-3 scale where 3 is “accurate and useful” and 1 is “don’t waste your time” and to display the results.

There are many other issues that need to be addressed, not the least of which include national security, privacy, viruses and adware, spam (more than 90 percent of all e-mails sent), the distraction from hand-held devices, and the amount of time we spend in communicating electronically. But I will be happy, at this point, if we can just find a way to make information easier to find and assure what is there is accurate.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.