Sunday, November 28, 2010

Seventeen Years Later, No Good Answers

NPR's Science Friday recently re-ran one if its shows from 1993. The topic was the Internet and how it was changing things.

This was the year the aphorism "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" was coined. Gopher was still a common information retrieval system. And the Web was a scrawny three-year-old.

Cartoon of On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog
Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow notes about the show: "Call-in guests asked how we'd manage the glut of information, how we'd figure out what was true, what you could do with your overstuffed email inbox, and, of course, how copyright would fare."

All still questions we struggle with today. Which reminded me of a recent MPR Midmorning show titled Media Overload and the Future of Journalism. The guests, both veteran journalists who have a book out called Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload, gave tips on how to filter the constantly inflowing mass.

I haven't read their book, but I'm afraid they're fighting a losing battle. Clearly, many of us are not successful at assessing what sources to trust on a basic level, and when a story gets more complicated, even the skeptical can be at a loss. For instance, almost none of us has the tools or the time to locate the original source of the "Obama's Asia trip costs $200 million a day" canard to prove that it is incorrect.

We're wired to trust and depend upon the people we interact with every day, which as we evolved were limited to our family and our close-knit community. Mass media make us feel as though lots of other people whom we don't personally know are part of our inner circle. (Print media are less a problem on this front, I think -- reading something doesn't have the quite same effect as seeing a living, breathing person say the same thing. Especially in high definition.)

But these media personalities don't know us, and they don't care about us. They have their own agendas, whether political or profit-oriented. And we have to learn to filter them out. Or just turn them off.

Now there's an idea.

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