Monday, January 9, 2006

The Fallacy of the Internet as Resource

Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe. ~Frank Zappa

Some time back, there was a big brouhaha about the Wikipedia. The Wikipedia is a web site where anyone can create an encyclopedia-style entry about anything. Moreover, you can edit other entries. The only means of determining accuracy is that the entries are supposed to be checked by other Wiki members, but, as one can imagine, there's still a lot of room for errors to creep in. And recently, someone finally deliberately edited bogus information into an entry, identifying a journalist as having taken part in the Kennedy assassinations. Supposedly this was done as a joke, providing a new definition of “sense of humor.” The hue and cry was phenomenal.
Ultimately, this business led to a tightening down of some sort at Wikipedia. Further, some folks started comparing the accuracy of the Wiki against that of an established encyclopedia, Britannica, I think. Believe it or not, errors were found in Britannica, though not as many as Wiki.
Of course, this sort of comparison is ridiculous because, firstly, it doesn't describe the nature of the errors, and secondly, since science articles were involved, errors may only be issues of being out of date. The problem with any encyclopedia is that it was frozen at some point, while science marches on.
What is funny is that there began this hue and cry about the potential worth of information found on the Web. Oh, my aching back. Who in the devil ever thought that the bulk of the information to be found on web sites and, even worse, blogs would be unfailingly accurate?
Some months ago, a picture appeared purporting to be from a 1950's issue of Popular Science. It showed a huge control panel, with dials, knobs, levers, and (are you ready for this?) a large steering wheel. The picture was supposed to be a portrayal of the home computer of the future! The picture was a joke and had been originally posted as such. Unfortunately, some news agency picked it up, and it got circulated as a real vision of the future as seen from the past.
What the picture actually showed was the control area of a submarine.
This incident was far from the first. An Indiana Congressman started getting angry letters and calls from constituents when it was announced on a “respectable” news source that he advocated changing I-69 to some other number because of the nasty nature of “69”. This sort of change would entail huge costs to taxpayers, not to mention to companies that make maps. The Congressman was puzzled because he had made no such suggestion, much less proposed any legislation. Where did it come from? It was picked up from the Internet, of course. What the “respectable” news source didn't realize was that the site where the story appeared was a satirical web site.
It was a joke, son.
These sorts of things say some pretty wretched things about the news media, but I can't imagine that anyone has trusted them since “Dewey Defeats Truman” and probably long before that.
If that's as far as it went, it wouldn't be so bad. But, seemingly every day, someone repeats some nonsense because they saw it on a web site or read it in a chat group. Mars made its closest approach to the Earth in many years in 2005. The web was filled with articles claiming that Mars would look as large as the full moon. People bought into this whole cloth as though it was silk. It didn't occur to anyone that Mars being close enough to look like the full moon would be cataclysmic to the Earth.
Apparently, our education system isn't doing any better than our journalistic endeavors.
We should have seen this coming. Years ago, Compuserv and AOL were flooding with the “Good Times” hoax that promised that if you opened an e-mail with the subject “Good Times”, the apocalypse would ensue. That was followed by “Pen Pal” and others. Even today, we get a note about once a month from a user asking if some “send this to everyone one in your address book” message is legitimate.
The fact is that part of our human nature is terminal gullibility. We are suspicious of the truth but willing to accept the outlandish in a heartbeat. The problem is that with the advent of the World Wide Web and easy Internet access, people can increase their stupidity levels at the speed of light.
AOL used to have an ad that showed a bumpkin using their service. The guy talked like a hillbilly, sat in front of his computer with a ball cap on, and blathered about how easy AOL was. He then took exception to something someone wrote and blasted his computer with a shotgun. His little daughter then hollered, “Ma! Pa done shut the AOL again!”
Compuserv marketed their service as a place where intelligent people went to surf and chat. Guess who's gone and who's still around? Apparently, there just weren't enough intelligent people around to keep Compuserv afloat. 

 Based on how the Internet is being used, I'd say the numbers haven't increased.

No comments:

Post a Comment