Saturday, January 08, 2011

Are we in a temporary quandary about how to deal with the glut of information?

Someone, I am not sure who but it may have been Alex Wright, said that we are not the first society to face a glut of information, in the sense that suddenly much more information is available to one generation than had been available to its parents. The development of printing, of the motorized printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television (?) may all have had that impact. It was suggested that one way of dealing with that glut is to select the information one wants to hear rather than the information one should want to hear -- to attend to the information that agrees with what one already believes rather than to attend to that which tends to change one's beliefs.

This seems to be a problem today. People often listen to the talk radio hosts with whom they agree rather than to the radio shows most likely to provide high quality information. The cable news channels get an audience by broadcasting to the converted often, rather than broadcasting the most valid information about novel events that may have future importance to the world and the nation. On the Internet we link on social networking sites with our friends, presumably with people that we generally agree with, rather than with the most knowledgeable people. On Twitter, are Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, the most connected tweeters really the most informative?

Tim Wu writes in his book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, about the history of new information technologies. In each there seems to be a cycle in which there is a cacophony of expression. Take the telephone, in which the Bell system sought to monopolize the business telephone services in large cities, especially in the East of the United States. Lots of local telephone services were developed serving rural markets that were of little interest to AT&T. Not only did these have community lines in which people could listen in on each other's conversations, but some provided community broadcasts of news, gossip and entertainment marked by a special signal (e.g. eight rings). Wu cites case after case in which ownership of the medium was centralized, as by AT&T monopolizing the telephone system and NBC and CBS creating networks of owned local radio stations. He leaves open the question of what will happen with the Internet.

The mass media -- radio, television, newspapers and movie news -- as they achieved market dominations tended to develop also an ethical commitment to provide news of high quality. While the FCC provided some oversight for the broadcast media, there seems to have been a fairly serious effort in many media to provide high quality information services. The BBC in the UK and public radio and television in the United States may have been leaders in this effort, but the national newspapers such as the Times of London, the New York Times, and the Washington Post also developed reputations for covering news broadly and well.

As Derek de Sola Price pointed out, the Internet is the first information infrastructure that makes point to point communication comparable in cost to one-to-many mass media communication. I wonder whether, as a result, it will be harder to centralize control over the Internet. Of course, the fiber optic cables on which the Internet digital packets flow will tend to be under central control, but with Net Neutrality laws we may be able to assure many voices will be heard via the Internet.

One may hope that many sources of information publishing on the Internet will have the discipline to provide high quality information. One may hope that the general population will develop information literacy, learning to choose among Internet sources for quality of information. Perhaps too there will be a role for civil society organizations to provide information to help the public to judge the quality of information, as the League of Women Voters helps voters judge the quality of assertions of political candidates and their supporters. Perhaps too there will be a role for government in regulating to block the most egregious misinformers.

Elinor Ostrom points out that a commons may be sustainably productive, avoiding "the tragedy of the commons", if society develops institutions for that common property that work. Can we develop such institutions for the information commons of the Internet that allow good information to drive out bad, that give voice to many who are now voiceless, and that keep us from being drowned in spam, phishing, and hate?

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