On the Abundance of Information

If I lived 50 years ago, I think I would have been very frustrated (although I probably wouldn’t be, since I wouldn’t know any better. So allow me revise my previous statement: if you were to send me to live 50 years in the past, I would have been very frustrated. Wait, should I say “would have been” or “would be”? Grammar is always so difficult when you time travel 🙂 )

The reason I would be so frustrated is the lack of available information. We live in an age, that if unless you are looking for something very confidential, you are able to find the information you need and fast. How does the old saying go? If you looked for something on Google and came up with no results, then it means you have a very specific fetish 😉

However, this plethora of data has its own inherit problems, the greatest one being able to determine which information is relevant and correct. A lot of people claim that this new abundance of information is actually a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, saying that you can’t really trust anything you read, and nothing is reliable.

To which I reply: “baloney!”

Lets review the evolution of information:

1) Information is not free and it is controlled (i.e. the writers and editors of encyclopedias, newspapers, etc.) by a small group of people, and the only way to attain this information is to be born into royalty or other form of high class – except for newspapers, which is usually a means for the small group to convey their idea of the truth to the masses (pretty much the way things were up until the mid 20th century).

2) Information is free, monitored by a bigger group of people (i.e. gives room to different opinions), but attaining it is cumbersome and not easily available to everyone (think 1950’s-1980’s).

3) Information is free, monitored by everyone and for everyone, which results in a great deal of unreliable information.

I still prefer the third option. Allow me to explain.

The way I see it, the third option is the best because it puts the power in the hands of everyone. Sure, back in the 1950’s the information you received was considered more reliable, but your choices were limited. I prefer that you let me decide what seems reliable and what doesn’t, instead of giving me only one source of information, which you decided to be true.

Yes, there’s a lot of stupid people out there saying plenty of stupid things, passing them off as intelligent data. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t also some useful information out there. For instance, right now I’m a CS (Computer Sciences) student in Tel-Aviv University. Wikipedia and Google are my best friends. If I could add them to my facebook profile, I would :-). Whenever I come across any new mathematical/computer-related term, I simply look it up, see the definition, or read an answer from a forum addressing what I need to find out (e.g.: I need to convert a Double expression to String. This is a relatively simple thing to do in Java, but when you are starting out, you still don’t have all of the syntax down. A simple search of: “java double to string” in Google will yield the proper method) and carry on.  Why, even if I’m in the middle of a lecture, and the teacher mentions something which I don’t understand, I simply use my iPhone to look up the relevant information, get my bearings, and carry on with the lesson. Try to imagine the same situation 10 years ago, when the internet was just starting to grow. Now try to imagine it 50 years ago :-).

Since the information I’m looking for is mostly mathematical, the degree of “stupidity” I encounter is minimal. Problems start appearing when you are looking for information other than mathematical definitions. Let us say I was looking for a biography on Albert Einstein. Well, the first place I’d probably go to is Wikipedia. And it’s not a bad place to start. It’ll definitely be Google’s first result. People badmouth Wikipedia all the time, but personally I think it is a wonderful source of information. I wouldn’t use it for scientific research (since it is not 100% accurate), but it is a highly reliable and relatively very accurate source of information. The problem is that once you start looking for information such as biographies, history, art, society, etc., the reliabilty of the information decreases. And not because people have got their facts wrong (which is also a problem, but usually not in the websites I’m talking about), the problem is people are confusing facts with opinions.

When I look up the definition of what is a “Kernel” in linear algebra, there isn’t too much room for opinions. It’s a pure mathematical definition, and the only difference (barring any mistakes in the definition itself) between the various sources of information could be in the manner in which the term is explained – which is very useful, since people understand things in different ways (now compare that with the 1950’s, where you had only one textbook, and if you didn’t happen to think like the person who wrote it, your studies just became a whole lot more difficult). However, if I look up a controversial issue, like for example: “Jerusalem”, the information will not be accurate. I don’t mean that I’ll necessarily see false information, but rather that specific information will be ommitted or mentioned, according to the writer’s point of view. And people consider that a major issue. But now comes my next point – how is that different from the professor writing the article for Britannica? Doesn’t he also have his own opinions, prejudices and view of the world? His only advantage is that he is an expert on the subject. But does that mean he’ll be objective?

This raises the great question of “what is the truth?”, but I think I’ll overextend myself trying to tackle this subject. Maybe another time.

To sum matters up – I believe that the more information, the better. Smart search engines like Google and its ilk, as well as good ol’ common sense, will help us seperate the relevant information from random ramblings of nitwits.

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