Saturday, February 27, 2010

from encyclopedia's to Google: thoughts on portals for information collection.

Once upon a time, information was power.  Those who controlled the information had the power to make, break, change and iterate their particular polemic.  The rest of us accepted that those who "knew", knew what was in our best interests.  Those who controlled information flow could control not only its dissemination but also its generation.  What was written, kept hidden, made public, exposed, created, imparted and expressed was in proportion to the benevolence or malevolence of the arbitrators of that information.

This state of affairs has changed markedly in the past 40 years or so - my lifetime so far.  Information - good information - is probably as valuable now as it ever was but with one significant difference - it's now accessible by much greater proportion of the population.  This means that information - even good enough information - is cheap, ubiquitous, ever-changing, endless, and it has the life-span of nano-seconds compared to the information available even as late as 30 or 40 years ago.

When I was a little girl, growing up on a farm kilometres from the closest town, with little access to television and little understanding of the pompous and esoteric murmurings of public radio - my only source of reliable information at the time was my father's beloved set of Encyclopedia Brittanica.  This was the place my father sent me when I wanted to know the meaning of something, the history of some event or the workings of the human body.  I was forced to learn how to use its indexing system - complicated enough as it was for an 9 year old - I would spend hours pouring over the 24 gargantuan tomes in their maroon bindings searching and cross-referencing to learn whatever I could about what it was itching in my brain.  Most of the time, I could barely comprehend the language, but learn it I did for there was no other way for me to access the information I wanted.  Effectively, I was controlled to know whatever it was that EB deemed it appropriate for me, my father and others blessed enough to own a set of Encyclopedia's!

Now, I Google! It's easy, it's fun, I can sift and sort information quickly, making pretty reasonable judgments as to its accuracy and intent - I hope!  In this day and age, Information is not deemed "of quality" until that fact has been intuited by the consumer of that information.  This makes the information available today quite a bit more subjective than it was many years ago I think and its perceived "quality" may be often questionable.   It's also a probably truth that what EB imparted as information back in the first half of the 20th Century was just as "questionable" to the biases of those in control of its dissemination - we may never really know. 

The web has distinguished itself as an inexhaustible vault of Information.  Qualitative and quantitative information may be harder to find but its there.  I already see a kind of frenzy happening around me - particularly in my work in community development -  in reining, boxing, corralling, sorting and sifting all this information in so that it becomes "easier to handle".

Government departments are attempting to make online "portals" to collect vast amounts of information into isolated repositories for different sections of the population - much like a kind of limited encyclopedia of knowledge about one subject at a time for one kind of group at a time.  It's all about control but in the guise of making this information easier for people to find.  A part of me fears this kind of approach.  To me it smacks of an inability to both accept the impossibility of being able to control information and the sheer effrontery to assume people want that information controlled in the first place.  

There's no question that the web can make hunting down scraps of information a bit like sifting for needles in haystacks but I'd rather people were given the options for how to make the search than having others dictate to certain groups via "portals" or "info exchanges" just what information they "need". 

People need to be skilled up and educated in how to search the web for what they want and need to know just like I was trained to hunt and understand the information I wanted from those precious books as a child.  Search engines need to be impartial and not geared to show the information of the highest bidders.  We simply cannot easily decide as  collective groups what is qualitative information anymore and the quantitative aspect of information control is most likely impossible anyway.  The skills for assessing and utilising quality information from across the web must taught - to individuals, so that they can decide for themselves what is useful to their needs.

We value freedom of speech.  Let's now also value and encourage the freedom of people to find and use good information for themselves rather than corralling it for them in the mistaken assumption that its control and manipulation is required.

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