Interview with Bill Thompson -Part IV – Fragmented Information

10 Mar

This is the fourth and concluding part of the interview with BBC technology columnist, Mr. Bill Thompson.

part 1, part 2, part 3

This kind of completes two of the major questions that I had. I would now move on to digital literacy and fragmented informational landscape. Google has made facts accessible to people – too accessible, some might say. What Google has done is allowed the people to pick up little facts, disembodied and without the contextual information. It may lead to a consumer who has a very particularistic trajectory of information and opinions. Do you see that as a possibility or does the fundamental interlinked nature of the Internet somehow manages to make information accessible in a more complete way? In a related point do you see that while we are becoming information rich, we are also simultaneously becoming knowledge poor.

That is such a big question. In fact, I share your concerns. I think there is a real danger – that it’s not even just that there is sort of a surfeit of facts and a lack of knowledge, its that the range of facts which we have available to us becomes defined by what is accessible through Google. And as we know that even Google, or any other search engine, only indexes a small portion of the sum of human knowledge, of the sum of what is available. And we see that this effect also becomes self-reinforcing so that somebody is researching something and they search on Google, find some information, they then reproduce that information and link to its source and it becomes therefore even more dominant, it becomes more likely to be the thing people will find next time they search and as a result alternative points of view, more obscure references, the more complex stuff which is harder to simplify and express drops down the Google ranking and essentially then becomes invisible.

There is much to be said for hard research that takes time, that is careful, that uncovers this sort of deeper information and makes it available to other people. We see in the world of non-fiction publishing, particularly I think with history every year or two we see a radical revisionist biography of some major historical figure based on a close reading of the archives or access to information which was previously unavailable. So all the biographies of Einstein are having to be rewritten at the moment because his letters from the 1950s have just become available and they give us a very different view of the man and particularly of his politics. Now if our view of Einstein was one defined by what Google finds out about Einstein we would know remarkably little. So we need scholars, we need the people who are always going to delve a little more deeply and there is danger in the Google world – it becomes harder to do that and fewer people will even have access to the products of their [careful researcher’s] work because what they write will not itself make it high up the ranking, will not have a sufficient ‘page rank’.

So I actually do think Google and the model of information access which it presents us is one that should be challenged and it should only ever be one part of the system. It is a bit like Wikipedia. I teach a journalism class and I say to my students that Wikipedia may be a good place to start your research but it must never be the place to finish it. Similarly with Google, anybody who only uses the Google search engine knows too little about the world.

You bring up an important point. Search engine design, and other web usage patterns are increasingly channeling users to a small set of sites with a particular set of knowledge and view points. But hasn’t that always been the case? An epidemiological study of how knowledge has traditionally spread in the world would probably show that at any one time only a small amount of knowledge is available to most people while most other knowledge withers into oblivion. So has Google really fundamentally changed the dynamics?

You are trying to do that to me again and I won’t let you.

This is not a fundamental shift in what it means to be human. None of this is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a human. Things may be faster, we may more access or whatever but we have always had these problems and we have always found solutions to them. And I am not sort of a millenialist about this; I don’t think this is the end of civilization. I think we face short term issues and we historically have found a way around them and we will again. That Google’s current dominance is a blip. In a sense – it will go, I don’t know how. Ok, here’s a good way in which Google’s dominance could go – so at the moment we have worries in the world about H5N1 avian flu mutating into a form which infects humans. Lets just suppose that this happens and that somebody somewhere writes an obscure academic paper which describes how basically to cure it and how to prevent infection in your household. Well all the people who rely on Google won’t find this paper will die and all the people who go to their library and look up the paper version will live and therefore the Google world will be over. How about that? There is something, perhaps not quite on that scale, something will happen which will force us to question our dependence on Google and that would be a good thing. We shouldn’t ever depend on anyone like that.

You know Mr. Thompson, even libraries have sort of shifted. They are increasingly interested in providing Internet access.

Yeah, it is and it is search rather than structure. And you know the fact is that search tools make it easy to be lazy and we are a lazy species and therefore we will lazy and we will carry on being lazy until we are forced, until something bad happens because of our laziness at which point we will mend our ways.

That’s why I had brought up the question of fragmented knowledge earlier. One of my close friends is blind and he generally has to read through the book to reach the information that he wants. He tends to have a much fuller idea of context and the kind of corroboration that he presents is much different from the casual kind of scattered anecdotal argumentation that others present. Of course part of that is a function of he being a conscientious arguer but certainly part of it stems from he not having as many short cuts to knowledge and actually having a fuller contextual understanding of the topic at hand. The fact is that most users can now parachute in and out of information and Google has helped make it easier.

I don’t think we see what’s really going on. There is a lot more information and there is a lot more to cope with and this superficial skimming is a very effective strategy. Skim reading is something we know how to do, we teach our children how to do, we value in ourselves and indeed in them, and skim surfing is just as valuable. You know I monitor thirty-forty blogs, news sites and stuff like that and when I am doing it, I don’t look too closely at things. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability or the facility to do something which is a lot deeper and a lot more involved.

I have a fifteen year daughter –she is doing her GCSE exams this year – and I have watched over the last 18 months or so how she has developed her ability to focus, her research skills, her reading around, she is surrounded by a pile of books, she has stopped using the computer as the way to find things quickly because she now needs to know stuff in depth and she is doing all of that. So I suspect that from the outside observing children we seem them in certain way because we only see part of what they do and we have to look in more detail. It is too easy to have the wrong idea and actually I am a lot more hopeful about this, having seen this with my daughter and I think I will start to see it with my son, who is fourteen at the moment. And again I see his application to the things he cares about and the way he searches. He is a big fan of The Oblivion, the X-Box game, his engagement and the depth of his understanding is immense. So we shouldn’t let the fact that we look at some domain of activity where they are purely superficial let us lose sight of the fact of other areas where it is not superficial at all, where they have developed exactly those skills which would want them to have.

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