Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Are We Becoming Too Reliant on the Internet?

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As our reliance on technology grows, a number of questions get asked. Do search engines such as Google actually contribute to a “dumbing-down” of people since nearly any information is so readily available, and so quickly? Perhaps this causes people to put less effort into retaining the information gathered from such searches, as it can quickly be searched again. Are our quick searches and use of sites such as Wikipedia just giving us false information in record time? Surely we've all seen cases where at best Wikipedia is incorrect, and at worst contains blatantly false information in an effort spread that false information. And finally, are we just relying on the Internet too much? Libraries across the globe served us well for thousands of years. While on-line digital media does have its disadvantages, it's insane to think that the wealth of information available on-line could possibly be a bad thing. And based on my own personal experience, I contend that the wealth of information available from all over the world is nothing short of a miracle.

The first question I asked, does Google make us stupid, has been asked a number of different ways and different times. Is fast access really turning us into a look it up and then throw it away society? Many people feel that this is indeed the case. But a recent paper by Pew Research summarizes two articles featured inThe Atlantic which present both sides of the argument and a poll conducted amongst people whom they believe to be experts. A resounding 76% of these experts go as far as to say that the use of the Internet has, in fact, enhanced human intelligence. Many of the comments of these experts centered around a common theme. With a single Internet search, one is able to find answers quickly, and find them from multiple sources. And by verifying these facts from multiple sources, one is armed with much better information. Finally, with this better information, one is therefore able to make better decisions and come to better conclusions based on that information.

While it may be true that having so much access to information leads to less retention, one will still retain the information on subsequent searches. It's no different than reading a book. The first time through a chapter in a text book, how much of the information does the average reader retain? Of course this depends on the material and the reader, but it's safe to say that it's rarely 100%. In fact, research shows that on average, we retain only 10% of what we read for the first time. So how does one retain more of the information then? By reading it again, of course. Through the act of repetition, a very simple thing that we have all learned quite early in our academic careers, you retain more of the information. The same goes with searching on the Internet. You may not remember each fact that you've looked up the first time, but through subsequent searches, your retention increases. If we're only expected to retain 10% of what we read the first time, why should we expect to retain a significantly higher percentage of what we search? I don't think we should, it just doesn't appear to be a fair comparison.

The next question centers on the accuracy of the information gathered from an on-line search. The website Wikipedia comes up near the top of the list for nearly every search I type into Google. When discussing an issue on a forum or other discussion medium, I'm often given links to information on Wikipedia. This leads me to believe that a great number of people rely quite heavily on the content on Wikipedia. So what is this site? Wikipedia derives its name and model from a very basic type of web site, the wiki. This type of site creates a database of information contributed and edited by its user base. The accuracy of this information relies on peer review, and the integrity of those peers. While most wikis are more narrow in their scope, Wikipedia aspires to contain all known information. But, as earlier stated, it's all user contributed content. Sometimes those users can be wrong, and sometimes they may even be malicious.

So just how accurate are Wikipedia and other similar sites? Should I take it at face value that all Detroit Lions fans are eagerly awaiting the death of William Clay Ford, Jr? Like anything that relies on user contribution, there's a lot of good information, and there's a lot of bad information. However, there is a common phrase used on Wikipedia, “citation needed.” The good contributors to Wikipedia cite their sources, and provide links to those sources where applicable. If the article you are reading cites credible sources, then the information is most likely accurate, and you can check those sources for yourself to be sure. Does this invalidate Internet research to some extent? I say absolutely not. There are plenty of books and newspapers on the shelf of your local library right now that contain inaccurate or malicious information. And I shouldn't have to mention anything beyond Stephen Glass when it comes to the integrity of magazines. Much like with print media, if you use multiple sources and double check anything that appears inaccurate, you're information base will be correct.

The final question, are we relying on the Internet too much, is one that is harder to answer. There are libraries in nearly every city across the country, full of books, magazines, microfiche and many other resources containing the answers to every question one can imagine. If you can't find what you need at your local library, they'll find it for you at a neighboring library and borrow it for you. You can even take your library card and use it at many neighboring libraries yourself. But how many of us today know how to use the Dewey Decimal System to find what they're looking for? How many people can use a microfiche? Or even worse yet, how many people even know where their local library is? I don't have actual numbers for these questions, but it shouldn't be hard to imagine an example of someone who doesn't off of the top of your head.

This is one point where the detractors get it right. We should all still have a library card for our local library. We should still know what the resources available at the library are, and know how to use them. What happens if the Internet kill switch is invoked? Or what happens when the only sources of the information that you need require a significant fee to access? And one more possibility, what happens when you just can't find a credible source for what you're looking for? Yes, believe it or not, the possibility exists that there is information that is not yet available on the Internet, and many experts believe that quite a bit doesn't. In any of these cases, the answer is a trip to the local library. And for the most animate on-line proponents, many libraries have very extensive on-line resources to search the materials that they have available. And they have one thing that the Internet doesn't offer. Knowledgeable librarians who are able to answer all your questions and help you find what you're looking for.

The world is a much different place than it was when I was in High School just sixteen years ago. Gathering sources once cost us an entire day at the library walking from shelf to shelf only to find that someone already took the book we need. Today, an equal number of credible sources can be gathered in just minutes with a well crafted Internet search. Does this cause us to retain less because it can be so easily found again? My personal experience says the complete opposite. I can read about any topic I'm interested in, often times reading more than what I was originally looking for. If I don't understand the explanation of one source, I can use a different source. This is true of any topic, and can be accomplished any time of day. So no, I don't believe that Google is causing any type of “dumbing down” of society. Are web sites such as Wikipedia giving us false information in record time? Perhaps this is the case if we look at one source and accept their explanation. But the same is true when it comes to off-line media as well. There are plenty of books, magazines and newspapers which contain inaccuracies and out-right lies supporting their author's agenda. By sticking to credible sources and verifying facts, there is no reason to believe that the Internet is any less accurate than information in print. And finally, do we rely too heavily on the Internet? This is the one question that I agree with the opponents of on-line research. While I agree that we should still know how to utilize all the resources available at the library, that doesn't lessen the value of the Internet. When we stop looking at the Internet as a competitor to print, and instead embrace it as an additional resource, then we can truly see its value.
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