Before we get into Internet information overload, let’s talk about information itself for a second. My dictionary defines information as “knowledge communicated by others or obtained from investigation, study, or instruction. “So what about knowledge? Samuel Johnson opined that “Knowledge is of two kinds: We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.” Alright then, so information may be defined as the ability to access knowledge and knowledge may be defined as the ability to access information. And if we consider increasing knowledge to be a good thing,then increasing information must be a good thing too, right? Not if you are a follower of T.S. Eliot, who ranted “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Yeesh . . . we’ve got to deal with wisdom, too?! Okay, to the dictionary again: Wisdom is defined as “accumulated information; knowledge”. Damn. This isn’t working. Let’s start over . . .
Let me describe my own experiences with Internet information overload; I believe they adequately mirror the experiences of many “electroculture middle-class” types who want to do more than click-and-drool through online smut site, but who also lack the perseverance, hardware or technical skills needed to maximize the Internet’s utility by “living” on-line. I usually cover music for Metroland and regularly attempt to use the Internet to gather artist or album information to make my articles stronger, more detailed, more factually accurate. I typically use one of the major Netscape-menued search engines (Yahoo, Magellan, Excite, InfoSeek or Lycos) to access information on a given subject. I am routinely overwhelmed by the amount of information the search engines burp out, but then find the bulk of the information to be irrelevant or unreliable. When all’s said and done, I usually have gleaned neither wisdom nor knowledge from the information — because I haven’t been able to separate cyber-wheat from cyber-chaff or because I didn’t want to bake with the tainted cyber-wheat that I did find.
So is the problem with the sprawling, unedited, anything-goes, everyone-can-play Internet or with my petite-bourgeois, electroculture middle-class attitude about it? I assumed it was the former (but of course I would, wouldn’t I?) until I ran my Internet bad attitude screed past Mark C. Taylor, Preston Parish Professor of Humanities at Williams College, and heard his self-assessment-inducing counterpoint.
“Most of the issues you’ve raised pre-suppose distinctions and hierarchies characteristic of print culture,” Taylor told me, “but the ways in which people read, write and think in a print environment and an electronic environment are different; there are different logics at work. During this transitional era between print and electronic culture, which I think is what we’re going through, there’s a great deal of old wine in new wine skins, a lot of repackaging of print into electronic format. What I hear in the background of your positions is that a lot of the kinds of checks and balances you’re used to in print media don’t exist on Internet; it may be the case that the alternative logic of the Internet simply will not allow what you are looking for.” Uh oh.
“Part of what’s at stake here,” Taylor continued, “is how we’re all thinking of the nature of factuality and veracity. As a journalist you have to ‘check the facts,’ but what count as facts may not be universal; in one cultural context, for example, the most important fact is the resurrection of Christ, but in another content that has no factuality at all.”
Taylor also noted that we can gain perspective on our current media transition by pondering an historic analog: “Think yourself back into a culture in which every written document was printed by hand. Once you had a printing press turning out hundreds or thousands of these documents, you were going to feel like you had been hit with ‘information overload’. We have, however, over the years, developed all kinds of filters to manage the information overload that was brought about by print. Newspapers, television channels, publishers, they all serve as filters for us: I may read The New York Times but not the National Enquirer; when the University of Chicago publishes a book I know I need to look at it, when Publisher X publishes a book I know I don’t need to waste my time looking at it. We’ve developed all these filters to help us cope — these are like the search engines of the print world. Eventually, we will develop other kinds of filters that will help us manage the flux of information in its electronic format.”
Search engines of the print world, huh? I suppose at this point, then, I should jump back to my opening attempt at defining “information” and note that I was using two of print culture’s most venerable search engines: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. They were contradictory, self-referential and told me more than I needed to know — but since I’m conditioned to using print search engines as primary information filters, I normally (i.e. when I wasn’t trying to make a point about search engines) would have applied innate, secondary filters to pick a single appropriate definition. I might have gotten a less complete definition than one developed by synthesizing all material culled from all search engines — but the definition would have stood on its own as “good information” nonetheless.
I suppose that someday all of us electroculture middle-class types will develop similar innate, secondary filtering capabilities for dealing with Internet information. I, however, am too impatient to wait for that day, so I asked the electroculturally advanced Mark Menard, Director of Operations for local Internet service provider CapitalNet, for some cheap, easy pointers on getting good information (i.e. things I would feel comfortable repeating in the printed public domain) out of the Internet right now. “If it’s more popular, there’s more information and more of it is probably incorrect, but there are places you can go where you can find good information, even on a popular subject. Personally, I use the USENET news-groups extensively. Posting something in a pertinent news-group will usually get you answers, and then responses to those answers. The well known facts in a specialist community that you don’t know about can be found out relatively easily this way — and if someone tries to pass off bunk, the other specialists in that community are going to say ‘Please! Give me a break!’ When it comes to doing research on the Web, you just want to seek out the Web pages of the known authorities on a particular subject.”
Chris Labatt-Simon, President of D&D Consulting, Ltd. (an Albany-based Web page design and application development firm) agreed that “the more obscure the subject matter, the easier it is to find good information. Carefully defining your terms to search engines helps too, and you’ve got to be careful using them. I’ll give you a good example: one of the companies that we’ve done work for had the initials ECT. We put together a large Web site for them and submitted their [address] to all the big search engines, but got a call from them a few weeks later saying ‘We’re doing searches for ECT and we can’t find our company!’ So we did some research and found out that a lot of people have misspelled et cetera as ECT in their pages — and all those pages were coming up instead of the company’s page!”
Both Taylor and Labatt-Simon cited “agent technology” as the next incremental step in culling Internet data. “You’ll tell an agent what you’re looking for,” explained Labatt-Simon, “and it will comb the web or interact with other systems to find it. The next time you login to the system, the agent will tell you what it has found.” (Taylor explained the technology anthropomorphically, likening an agent to an “electronic research assistant”.) Labatt-Simon also predicted that ongoing Microsoft and Netscape initiatives to enhance user interactivity with online information will help defuse personal users’ fear of that information, while at the same time expanding the utility of the Internet to business users. “Six months ago, 75 percent of the things customers wanted to do were impossible,” said Labatt-Simon. “Now it’s at about 25-50 percent impossible. Hopefully by the end of the year everything they want will be possible.”
Hopefully, that also means that by year’s end I’ll be able to research, say, the Butthole Surfers’ new album without getting steered into a page devoted to the lyrics of the Beach Boys’ song “Surfers Rule”or the charmingly explicit, matter-of-fact “Above the Butthole”photo from GRUF magazine’s Web site. That will certainly be valuable, if a bit less eye-opening.