Electronic Knowledge


In 1620, Francis Bacon wrote:

"It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of inventions, and these are nowhere to be seen nowhere (sic) more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to ancients, and of which the origins, though recent, are obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world."

While it is arguable that we have come a long way since the invention of the printing press, it remains a good thing "to observe the force and virtue and consequence of inventions", even today. I was reminded of this as I read about the new search engine being launched by Amazon.com. This new search engine allows customers to search approximately 120,000 books in a database for a particular word or phrase. In the click of a mouse all references to the search topic found in any of the 120,000 books will appear on the customer's screen. I am quite sure that all appropriate information on acquiring the books containing the desired references will also be made readily available.

To a guy born in Detroit nearly 60 years ago, before computers were anything but an exotic, and expensive, plaything for engineers, this seems wondrous indeed. Anyone who has spent days in a library searching through endless stacks of books, magazines, and papers for a research project can easily see the possibilities. But a guy like me also has to ask, "Is this an entirely good thing?"

The reason for my question is that I wonder how this will affect the way we think about knowledge and truth?

We live in an age in which truth is viewed as relative, even ephemeral. At least part of the reason for this is that we live in a world in which "knowledge" changes quickly. My father, who was 50 years old when I was born, was 6 years old when the Wright brothers first took to the air. In his early years, horses and wagons were the common mode of transportation. My grandfather was born before the Civil War ended and as I was growing up, I knew some elderly folks who were alive when Abraham Lincoln was president. I was 10 when the Russians put the first satellite into earth orbit. I was 21 when the first man walked on the moon. The internet as we know it is only 10 to 15 years old. It was only about 30 years ago that electronic calculators were a marvel. Greater changes in technology, and in the way we live, have taken place in my life time than took place in, at least, the 500 years before I was born. We take for granted the fact that the technology we use today will be obsolete in less than 5 years. The point here is not that I am really old, but to remind those of you who are less than 40 years of age that the world we live in is a very recent invention.

One of the greatest changes taking place in the last 20 years or so has been in the fields of publishing and communications. Prior to the internet, with its blogs, email, and other novelties, publishing was not something open to the average Joe's participation. Publishing nearly any piece of writing required at least a modicum of capital in order to pay writers, buy or hire printing and binding equipment and have access to distribution channels. Publishers of books and magazines were, and are, of course, careful to protect their investments with copyrights and by-lines. Something published the old-fashioned way was not and is not now easy to plagiarize. Publishers also serve as arbiters of what gets published; and, in most cases, as guarantors of the accuracy and quality of the material they publish. Once published in book or magazine form it is not easy for the author or publisher to deny responsibility for it, nor is it always easy to correct errors in such material. Printed material is not, at least to a tradition minded guy like me, ephemeral and subject to manipulation. It carries a certain air of credibility; it can easily be found and referred to again and again, it does not change.

The internet has changed the business of publishing. Now any idiot (including yours truly) can set up a blog or a web-site and be in the publishing business with little or no investment. The web has provided a vehicle for anyone with access to a computer to express himself to the world with the greatest of ease. There are two problems that I see, however, with publishing on the internet -- first, there is no publisher to serve as a protector of quality and accuracy. Another problem is that, because it is so easy and cheap to gain access the internet, there are many folks who think that material appearing there is in the public domain, their own private plaything; for many people, whatever appears on the internet is fair game to do with as they please.

This was brought home to me with the posting of obscene material and ads for items, the marketing of which I certainly have to wish to be associated with, in comments on my blog. I guess the thing I find so upsetting is that, first of all, whoever did that seems to think they have the right to do so without asking my permission. They have no such right, anymore than they would have the right to hi-jack a television signal to broadcast such material. The second thing is that, if they believe they have the right to do what they did, sooner or later some clever hacker is going to figure out that he (or she) has the right to prepare his own posts for my blog or alter posts that I have published here. What is I post on this blog is hardly impervious to being pirated for someone else's purposes, and I might have a hard time proving that the authorship was not my own, or that I published something that is no longer here.

Now, if this is true in my own little world, how true will it be when information that is now in libraries, on paper, is only available electronically? Will we be able to believe anything published on the web is what the author intended to write, and that the facts can be relied upon, if we cannot be sure it has not been tampered with? In future years, will we have confidence that we know the truth of any historical event if the record is solely available in electronic format? It might become incredibly difficult to preserve any original records inviolate from the tampering of those who do not view truth with the same regard as we do. We will have to rely on the integrity of those maintaining the records, and to be honest, I don't have a great deal of confidence that truth is widely thought of as something that must be guarded and preserved.

I don't know if the situation will develop as I see it might. I know we have already seen such a venerable institution as The New York Times fall prey to reporters and editors with little regard for the facts. I don't know what there is to prevent this becoming much more widespread, but then I guess, in the end, this is in God's hands. However, you might see why I am not completely convinced that the coming age of electronic libraries is an unmitigated blessing.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on November 26, 2003 7:46 PM.

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