More than 20 years ago, Washington Post editorial writer Meg Greenfield warned people not to confuse information with knowledge. In this era we refer to as the Information Age, that’s provocative advice.
Specifically, here’s a bit of what she said in this June 26, 1989 Newsweek piece called, “Misled by the Facts”:
“There are all these names and all these political tags and odd bits of information that we string together and talk about without any more insight than you can put on graffiti …
“Our heads are stuffed full of snippets of lore that give us the false impression that we know something when we don’t. We are misled by our own information, knowing much more than we understand.”
And if you know much about the history of the Internet, you’ll remember that the Internet was not even commercialized (meaning everyone had access to it) until 1995, six years after this article appeared.
So if there was an information glut when Greenfield issued her warning, there is an information tsunami confronting us today when the Web is going full tilt.
All this, of course, addresses the question of whether we know more today (thanks to the Web) that we knew when all we had were the traditional mass media.
If you’re saying yes and basing your answer strictly on the amount of information available to us, Ms. Greenfield would say you are wrong. More information does not equal more knowledge.
There are at least three problems with making the argument that a massive amount of raw information leads to greater understanding and wisdom:
- The mere fact that all this information is out there on the Web does not – in any way, shape, or form – mean it is actually being accessed. Potential access does not equal sitting down and reading the stuff.
- The fact that much of the information is in raw, unedited form makes understanding that data difficult for many people who don’t have the frame of reference needed to grasp it and make connections. That’s what seasoned editors are for. We’re not talking lack of intelligence by readers; the point is simply that everyone cannot have a frame of reference about everything.
- The sources of this information tsunami are so many and varied that you find Wiki points made by experts standing next to other Wiki points made by complete idiots. In between are those who are passing along rumors they have heard for so long that they assume them to be true. If you’re a fan of John Wayne westerns, you may remember a classic line from, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” where a newspaper editor says toward the end, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Voila: Welcome to Wikipedia.
A lot of young people today, like some in my university classes, have trouble distinguishing among truth, fiction, and rumors on the Internet. Sources don’t really seem to matter to them, as long as it’s in written form on the Web. Clearly, there is a problem here.
It has often reminded me of those advertising logos you see (indeed there is a whole franchise of stores under this name) that say, “As Seen on TV.” The assumption is that – hey!—since it’s on TV, it must be true. Well, to many young people, if it’s on the Internet it must be true. Questions of source credibility don’t enter in much.
A world of difference
The Web is bringing us the world in so many wonderful ways. But we would do well to remember that all views of that world are not created equal.
Clearly, as is evidenced by the fact our country is involved now in three military actions in three different countries, we don’t really understand that world much better than before.