The Internet: For Better or for Worse

Posting to NGC4LIB

Re: The Internet: For Better or for Worse / Steve Coll, NY Review of Books (April 7, 2011)

This article reviews a couple of books, but the one that interests me here is “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” by Tim Wu, which discusses how in the past, the new media was relatively free and open, only to be taken over by bigger powers in the end. He uses his example in the early days of radio, e.g.

“Churches, clubs, oddballs, gadget hounds, and sports entrepreneurs launched radio stations that could reach listeners over a few square miles. By the end of 1924, American manufacturers had sold more than two million radio sets capable of broadcasting. Dense urban areas such as Manhattan tuned in to a cacophony on the airwaves.”

Many people thought that radio would really let democracy work since everybody could be connected in all sorts of new ways. Of course, this did not happen since the radio waves became controlled by business and the governments.

I am sure this sounds familiar with today’s focus on the internet, but the author (Tim Wu) says: “The individual holds more power than at any time in the past century, and literally in the palm of his hand,” Wu writes. “Whether or not he can hold on to it is another matter.”

While I agree with this, (I haven’t read the book so perhaps there is more there. By the way, there are several videos of him discussing his book which I also haven’t seen yet but I plan to, e.g. my own experience demonstrates that in order to have this “power”–which consists of nothing more than having an incredible amount of useful information at your fingertips–it takes a lot of skill to be able to find what you want after wading through all of the garbage that is in the way.

One thing I have learned by answering reference questions is a major difference I have with almost all of my patrons: to do good reference work, you need a lot of patience and that so-called “stick-to-it-iveness”. The vast majority of people give up far too soon, or decide “good enough,” or even–a surprising number of times–they change their question because they feel they are either getting too much information or not enough! People who know how to search, where to search and what to search for definitely have a certain amount of power, but for the average person who has not been trained, they can only type in a few words into Google, or the database of their choice, and assume (that is, they must have no choice except to hope) that whatever comes up first is the most “relevant” and the rest must be “irrelevant”.

Many times, the reference librarian’s job is simply to use the right tool for the right job. I wrote about this before in a posting “Cablegate from Wikileaks: a case study”, where I mentioned that I am not a US government documents expert, but nevertheless based on my training, I could find the answer to a very specific question–yet it took me time. I am sure that the average person could not do what I did, because they don’t have my training, but also: I didn’t give up.

Robert Noyce (inventor of the microchip) said, “Knowledge is power. Knowledge shared is power multiplied.” So, while I agree that the individual holds an incredible amount of power/knowledge, this remains only potential power if you can’t find what you need, or if you are satisfied with what some algorithm created by who knows who for who knows what purposes, decides for you what is “relevant”. If this is the case, it is only logical to ask what exactly the “power” is that the individual is supposed to have, and who or what actually controls it.

I honestly believe that the traditional goals of librarianship are just as important now as ever before. What seems to be simple and easy more often than not turns out to be far more difficult and demanding.