Friday, November 21, 2008

Internet research: boon or bane?

On November 4 while the world was celebrating the ascent of a Barack Obama, the literary giant responsible for ER and Jurassic Park died quietly after a private battle with cancer. Better known for his controversial portrayal of science-gone-bad, Michael Crichton did not reserve his criticism for geneticists and technologists alone. In 1993, in a speech to the U.S. National Press Club, criticized the conventional media for not doing a good job because they had a monopoly on information. In the same breath he would laud the advent of the internet which he thought would destroy this monopoly. It’s been 15 years since he predicted the future of the media and the internet; was he right?

Are we currently living in an age of information liberation? It certainly seems so. I can sit comfortably at home in the Townships, in my pyjamas if I like, and watch Angelina Jolie talk about her experiences talking with refugees in Chad or Al Gore talk about his new ideas on climate change.

The internet has given us the option of sidestepping the conventional media and getting at the experts directly. It has removed all the filters put on newspapers, magazines and television news. Interested in endangered species? You can go to Youtube type in the name E.O. Wilson and instantly one of the most famous ecologists in the world is in your living room. Interested in energy? Thomas Friedman can come over any time of day or night and tell you why energy innovation will be more important than information innovation.

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves; we’re still not getting pure information. We’re getting information that went in the ears of E.O. Wilson, was processed by his brain and came out his mouth. We’ve just skipped the step of the media that usually lies between E.O. Wilson’s words and us. It’s kind of like taking out a link in the childhood game of broken telephone. The message can get a little clearer. Let me mention a couple of these sites that are bringing the experts to the masses.

One of the most popular of these sites is Originally a conference about technology, entertainment and design, TED has branched out so far that they now state their mission in two words: spreading ideas. The site includes over 200 different presentations from a range of speakers including Bill Clinton, Bono, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. My personal favourite is neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of a stroke she suffered. Her expertise with the human brain allowed her identify different parts of her brain that were shutting down as her stroke progressed leaving with an entirely new outlook on life.

Another great site is which pits two experts of differing opinions, on subjects ranging from foreign policy to hip hop, against each other for one hour. It started with two journalists who began putting their discussions online but they soon realized that if they got two guests, they could take the day off! While one hour is never long enough to resolve anything, it certainly separates the wheat from the chaff and this site has become so popular that extracts from these discussions are regularly published in the New York Times.

While Crichton yearned for the filters that newspapers put on information to be removed and may have been right about some of its benefits, he didn’t see one important complication. Doing research on the internet is about as easy as trying to drink water out of a fire hose; there’s just too much information and it’s difficult to make sense of it and often when trying to drink out of this torrent of information all that happens is we get soaking wet.

What Crichton overlooked is that newspapers, magazines and televisions news don’t just present information as is, they prioritize news and omit less important news stories. They take complex ideas and boil them down to their essentials making them easier to read. They take this torrent of information and divert some parts and reorganize other parts to make it easier to digest.

The use of this reorganization is obvious when you realize that there is nothing quick about an internet search. Different websites have different, often contradictory, points of view that are not always well written or well presented. Some sites get bogged down in technical details while others barely skim the surface of complex issues. What we are doing when we do research on the internet is we are being our own journalist. We sort through the information and arrange it in a way that makes sense to us. Sometimes, for topics we’re really interested in, it’s worth it for us to do this but for other topics, where we only have a passing interest, it’s easier to let the journalists do the journalism.

As far as I see, we are currently enjoying the best of both worlds – or rather, all worlds. All different forms of media give us different access to different information. Newspapers and television news give us the basics of what’s happening. Magazines give us more in depth coverage of more specific issues and the internet gives us that fire hose of knowledge which, used in the right way, can quench our thirst for knowledge. The Michael Crichton of 1993 would be happy. Happier anyway.

Seen in the November 12, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

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