Net information is not knowledge

Net information is not knowledge
by Roopinder Singh

COMPUTERS and the Internet have given us access to information at a scale and speed never before encountered by mankind. We have billions of bits of information at our fingertips and massive search engines to help us navigate this cyber world.

All too often, we hear people mouth a “fact” with the sole authority that it has been accessed through the Internet. How wrong can they be! Sometimes, the Internet is seen as a library of information, stored electronically, and easily accessed.

There is no doubt that the Internet allows everyone to access information at a blazing speed, but it has no way of ensuring that the information that is carried on it is accurate. The Internet is a medium and information given through it can be correct or malicious. It is also wrong to compare the Internet to a library. Normally, books in a library go through a process of selection, by the publishers, and the librarians, and thus, often those that are below a particular standard will not find place on library shelves.

On the other hand, anyone can publish on the Net and this leads to a profusion of factoids, bits of information that masquerade as facts.

How then do you find knowledge that you can trust? In the same way always- by checking the validity of the facts, the credibility of the source of information. If something has been published by say Encyclopaedia Britannica, you can be sure about the information given therein. Similarly, major newspapers and magazines have their websites online. These online editions have the same credibility as the print editions.

At the other end of the spectrum are blogs, user-generated websites where entries are made in journal style and displayed in a reverse chronological order.

Blogs often provide commentary or news on a particular subject, such as food, politics, or local news. Some are more personal online diaries. Blogs are normally full of opinion on anything and everything. You can find a blog about almost everything under the sun, but again, credibility is an issue. While blogs are great for spreading information and discussing it, their very profusion makes it difficult to sift the facts from rumours and misinformation.

Sometimes, reactions pour in about something that never happened. Imagine how silly it feels later when you find out that the statement that you were reacting to is not true at all.

One such example is an e-mail chain letter, accusing a New York designer, Tommy Hilfiger, of making racist comments on the Oprah Winfrey show on TV. It asks the recipients to boycott his products. The message ends with: “Please send this message to anyone you know.”

Angry reactions to this statement abound on the Net. However, Oprah’s website states: “For the record, the rumoured event that has circulated on the Internet and by word-of-mouth never happened. Mr Hilfiger has never appeared on the show. In fact, Oprah has never even met him.” So prevalent are such urban legends that there are websites devoted to busting them and stating facts.

A brave new experiment started on the Internet has now run into trouble. Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia that is based on the premise that “openness leads to critical thinking and ‘collaborative knowledge’ encourages critical thinking”.

Wikipedia calls itself “the free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit”. A great idea, and a productive one too, since at the time of writing this article, it had 16,99,298 articles in English. It stresses on the principle of “an adherence to a neutral point of view”, as articulated by its leading light, Jimmy Wales.

The pitfalls of allowing “anyone” to edit articles were highlighted when Sindbad, a popular American comedian, was declared dead, not once, but twice, while he was still alive.

John Seigenthaler Sr, an eminent journalist and founder of The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, USA, who had served as an assistant to attorney general Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s, was accused in a Wikipedia entry of having been involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby.

Seigenthaler is right when he calls it an “Internet character assassination”. Who did it? No one knows because anonymity is granted on the Net to protect those with unpopular positions from ridicule. However, the same anonymity also makes it difficult for the reader to judge the credentials of the contributor of information.

If you don’t know the credentials of a source, how do you judge the value of information? To be valuable, information must be credible. For it to be credible, you must know the sources and trust them.

“Garbage in, garbage out,” often abbreviated as GIGO, is a computer axiom which asserts that if invalid data is entered into a system, the resulting output will also be invalid. It has spawned a new expression, “Garbage In, Gospel Out,” a wry comment on our tendency to unquestioningly accept the results from computers. We must always remember that no matter how quick and all-pervasive the Internet has become, it is still a medium of conveying information, pictures, music et all, good or bad, correct or incorrect.

The Internet makes it so easy to dig information and disseminate it. However, the ease of operation also places responsibility on your shoulders to ensure that what you take as facts are indeed facts. Information is never knowledge, and the reader has to use his discretion and wisdom to be able to spot the difference.

This article was published on the Op-Ed page of The Tribune.