Monday, July 02, 2007

Knowledge and the web

Sometimes I might sound like a know-it-all. In fact, it's the web that knows so much. I just know a few ways to find out about something - and a smoldering desire.

I really appreciate being able to find answers. I find before me niggling little questions all the time, in all aspects of life and knowledge. On one level, much of it is just trivia. But on another level, it's about integration - of knowledge, facts, and understanding. For the first time in my life, I can find out most of what I want to know; I can fill in all the little gaps that have been outstanding for decades.

Well, it's not that simple, of course.

First, I can't find all the answers. When the subject is sufficiently obscure, the odds are a lot lower. In particular, it's harder if the factoid is localised to a time or place, and that locale is not the here and now - more specifically, the U.S. and now. This is simply the weight of numbers, nothing more, nothing less. If I want the words to a Dave Graney song, well sorry, but Mr Graney's never built a great following in America.

Second, the issue of trust still looms large. Wikipedia I largely trust, but again it's more reliable when the information is not too obscure; being American helps again. But if the site's not got a reputation, it's harder to trust the information; even the more reputable sites can always be plain wrong.

Snopes, the urban myth site, is good. Very good, if trust is the issue and you want to track down the veracity of a claim or a story.

The third problem with this sort of knowledge is laziness - or lack of time, surfeit of trust, call it what you will. I don't have the time or desire to consult a variety of sources. Not the time to fully come to grips with a subject. The web has made it easier than ever to become allegedly knowledgeable without necessarily doing any more than skim the surface. If you're not careful, you can become prey to misinformation - or disinformation, more insidiously. But you can also gain a false confidence in your own level of knowledge, without having studied or learnt in a structured way. The best - worst - example of this is seeking out medical information. While you can find out a certain amount, if it isn't accompanied by a solid background and context for the knowledge, self-diagnosis can be downright dangerous.

On the one hand, I'm not going to try to become an expert at everything. On the other hand, a proper respect for the topic requires an amount of diligence. For example, the diligence to trace back the sources on Wikipedia.

This brings us to the true value of Wikipedia. Any information repository is only as good as its sources. And usually Wikipedia articles will either contain the references to allow the traceback, or note that a fact is unsourced.

Some time back, I found an excellent source for New Zealand pop music of the 60s and 70s, at It looks like it's been around for up to 10 years - the style is that old. It was obviously compiled by a real fan, and someone who lived in the era. Some of it is personal knowledge of the writer, Bruce Sergent; a lot of it must have been gleaned from publications, and particularly contact with the musicians of the time. But because it's so much more comprehensive than any other source on the web, there's very little chance of ascertaining the veracity of anything mentioned. Few sources are quoted. That's not to say it's unreliable; as with Wikipedia, the great majority of information that can be checked, does check out.

So this is the problem with knowledge, and it's not really very different from general epistemological issues. Anywhere, knowledge - as with history - is in the hands of the writer, and people arrive at some sort of consensus on the value of the knowledge.

This milieu is not a satisfactory substitute for formal, structured learning. Having said that, I've filled in a welter of gaps in my knowledge, and am learning, learning all the time how to find things out.

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