New Media, Old Media Spoofed

May 7, 2009

The story “Student’s Wikipedia Hoax Quote Used Worldwide in Newspaper Obituaries” here underscored for me the precarious nature of “information” in today’s world. The Irish Times reported that a fake quote in Wikipedia popped up in newspapers around the world. New media and old media both fell into the comfortable assumption that if it is online, information is correct, accurate, true, and well-formed.

At a conference yesterday, I spoke with a group of information professionals. The subject was the complexity of information. One of the people in the group said, “Most of the technical information goes right over my head. At work, people turn to me for answers.”

I don’t want to dip into epistemological waters. I can observe that the rising amount of digital information (right or wrong is irrelevant) poses some major challenges to individuals and organizations. The push for cost reduction fosters an environment suitable for short cuts.

Last Sunday, one of my publishers (Harry Collier, managing director, Infonortics Ltd.) and I were talking about the change in how large news organizations operated. He had worked from book and newspaper publishers earlier in his career as i had. He noted that the days of investigative reporting seem to have passed.

I had to agree. The advent of online has made research something that takes place within the cheerful confines of the Web browser. Interviews I once conducted face to face, now take place via email. Even the telephone has fallen from favor because it is difficult to catch a person when he or she is not busy.

A number of companies involved in content processing are experimenting with systems that can provide some clues to the “provenance” or “sentiment” of information. The idea is that tireless software can provide some guideposts one can use to determine if a statement is right or wrong, hot or cold, or some similar soft characteristic.

The quote story from the Irish Times highlights the pervasiveness of online short cuts. In this case, the quote is unlikely to do much lasting harm. Can the same be said of other information short cuts that are taken each day? Will one of these short cuts trigger a chain of unexpected events? Will the work processes that encourage short cuts create ever more chaotic information systems that act like a brake on performance? Who is spoofing whom? Maybe ourselves?

Stephen Arnold, June 8, 2009


One Response to “New Media, Old Media Spoofed”

  1. sperky undernet on May 7th, 2009 8:34 am

    The other day in your post “Patricians, Cesspools and Rubber Boots”
    you say: “We have a new context in which digital information is not a cause, but a consequence of our present way of existing.”

    This present example “Student’s Wikipedia Hoax Quote” turns that on its head to We have a new context in which digital information is not a consequence, but a cause of our present way of existing. He did this to get some insight on globalization. And I’ll bet some of those financial quants multiplying big bucks out of cess-speculation were just trying to figure out what ticks financially.

    In this context, it doesn’t matter that the quote and the toxic tricks were simulations that “worked”. But perhaps it does matter that Google has found the recipe to make big bucks on what essentially is nonsense, some of which works and some of which doesn’t and most that just sits there unaccessed. Makes you want to reconsider page 30 of Altavista results. Makes you wonder why or how *information* works. But call it a cesspool and it works just as well. Call it what you like, it flows and the new patricians can live off the meterage. You can wear rubber boots and assume responsibility or just don’t use it or be a googluddite.

    I venture many people would trade everything they know from their online lives for making just those few right moves that allow them to become producers instead of open synapses for all those zeros and ones. Those few right moves, I believe, come from developing real life habits “beyond search” and outside the CPU box and the way to “get there” for those not there might look – if we knew – like a Rod Serling Twilight Zone story.

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