by Frederick Rustam
Part Five, WHAT DOES INFORMATION WANT?
|Part One||Part Two||Part Three||Part Four|
Questor Institute is a new, experimental technical school where
bright-but-poor high-school graduates on full scholarships spend
two years seeking to become wizards of Internet sorcery by studying
the science and philosophy of information retrieval from textual
databases such as the World Wide Web. In Part Four, "Ordinary
Citizens as Scholars," Kevin and Marylou learned how the Internet
evolved from a techno-tool for academics into an information system
for the masses, They also learned about the usefulness of citizen
websites, and they began a hunt for the awful Witchfinder General.
"How many times," the Rector began, "have you heard or read that
information on the Internet is unreliable? 'Anybody can put anything
on the Internet,' they say. Do you believe that Internet information
is unreliable?... If you do, you shouldn't be here, studying Internet
"This widespread belief about the People's Medium is partly a result
of the news media's early campaign of unwarranted disrespect aimed
at the Internet, which they viewed as dangerously-competitive.
"The belief about the unreliability of Internet information is also,
perhaps mostly, a product of bad personal experiences on the Internet.
Users have indeed found some Internet information to be unreliable.
Statements of fact have proved to be guesses, opinions, and even
deliberate falsehoods. We can't deny this reality. The Internet is,
after all, not just a computer-and-cable thing; it's a people thing.
It mirrors the people who put stuff up on it.
"Yet it's wrong to say, 'To the degree that our society is composed of
unreliable people, the Internet will be unreliable.' Serious Internet
people, especially those who are in entrepreneurial roles such as Web
authors and webmasters are better-educated and more ethical than our
society as a whole, I believe. So one might better say, 'Internet
information is more reliable than that circulating person-to-person
within our society.'
"That's faint praise, though." He cupped an ear with his left hand.
"Almost any kind of information is more reliable than gossip,
especially that which has propagated beyond its original source.
"All of you have used the Internet for sometime, now. You've seen
some overtly-unreliable information and other info which, although
sincerely worded, seems to require verification. Usenet and Web
discussion forums are responsible for much of the belief in the
unreliability of Internet information. From its early days as an
intercommunication tool for academic researchers, the Internet
discussion forum has evolved to a societal info-medium with more
facets than a fly's eyes, a place where anybody with access to a
computer can have his say. In Internet forums, expectations for
the accuracy of opportunistically-posted information aren't high.
"As infoseekers, we aren't so-much concerned with the reliability
of forum 'rants,' although even rants may contain some useful
information or leads to useful info. We are concerned with seemingly-
factual forum postings which we, in our search-desperation, may have
to retrieve in order to obtain anything from the Internet on a desired
subject. When useful info appears in a forum posting, how should we
view it: as certain truth, as probable truth, or as possible truth?
To emphasize his next remark, the Rector bent to hold a hand about
three feet parallel to and above the floor. As he spoke, he raised
the hand to the top of his head.
"Judging the truth of a seemingly-factual statement is something we
begin to do as children, and which we do better as our knowledge
accumulates and our mature judgment sharpens. So we must learn,
from our experiences, how to handle the information in forums.
"Discussion forums are not to be scoffed-at and avoided as sources
of useful information. Serious forums are a goldmine of information
offered for others by citizens who know what they're talking about.
Such forums are not just places for the dissemination of personal
knowledge, that is, the information in our heads. They're also places
for posting secondary information---that which someone other than the
poster has published somewhere else. Forum posters often quote from
or cite other, more-reliable sources of info. We'll discuss this
'information transfer' process, next.
"The information on webpages is generally more reliable than that
found in discussion forums. Website authors have a greater personal
involvement in their pages. Their information remains more-easily-
available for a longer time. Their website credibility and their
personal reputations are more at stake, so to speak. But a good,
authoritative forum posting is better than a poorly-researched
webpage. Some webpages are careless with facts, too.
"So how do we judge the reliability of Internet information?...
If you desire a simple formula for doing this, you desire in vain.
There is none. But some have tried to codify reliability judgment.
You may have read some of these written guidelines for judging
Internet information. I recall one written by a well-intentioned
school librarian. She wrote that Internet users should seek to verify
Internet information by asking themselves several questions about the
info and its author---questions which are difficult or impossible to
answer in a reasonable time. 'What are the author's qualifications?'
'What else has he written?' Questions like that may be unanswerable,
"Another of the librarian's reliability principles was that we
should verify Internet information by comparing it with that from
more-reliable sources, such as reference books."
From his desk, the Rector produced a thick book, which he waved
at the students.
"I see some of you smirking at this piece of advice---as well you might.
If we have to verify all Internet information with 'book information,'
we might as well just consult the books, skip the Internet, and save
ourselves some time.
"If then, a cookbook approach to judging information reliability
isn't practicable, what approach is?... First, you must seek info
on the Internet with an open mind. Use your natural judgment, that
which you've developed and polished during your years of intellectual
activity. <i>Above all, don't be afraid to believe what you find on
the Internet.</i> Especially that which seems to have been written
with a confident authority. But verify it if you must.
WHAM!! He dropped the heavy reference book onto his desk.
"A curiosity-satisfaction information discovery usually doesn't usually
require a trip to the public library's reference shelf for verification.
But an 'important' information query on the Internet may seem to require
verification. Try to use the Internet itself to do this. Let's not
undermine our People's medium by preferring only other media for our
verification. Many authoritative printed works have been digitized,
and have found their way onto the Web. Use these, when applicable.
"Let me give you an example of questionable information which I
discovered on the Web. On a citizen interest-website about Russia,
were listed some unusual facts. One of these was that actor Walter
Matthau's father had been an Russian Orthodox priest. Because I
believed Matthau to be Jewish, I accessed his entry in the Internet
Movie Data Base, a generally-reliable infosource. The actor's
biographical info there said that Matthau's father had been a street
peddler in Kiev, and that that the actor, who often kidded others
about himself, told people that his father had been an Orthodox
priest who'd been defrocked for his belief in the infallibility
of the Roman Catholic Pope!
"This example is interesting because it illustrates how a myth, even a
laughable one, can be transmuted into a seeming-fact and be offered as
truth by a sincere webpage author. My doubt about it led me to verify
it by consulting another, more-reliable Web infosource. I'm sure that
Walter Matthau never imagined that his little jest would harden into
a factoid about him on the People's Database. The Internet teems with
just such factoids as this one, and we should exercise reasonable
caution about what we retrieve there.
"Any questions?... I know I've raised more than I answered."
A girl asked, "If I supply somebody with information from the Net,
and that somebody questions its reliability, what do I say to them?"
"Always cite your source of Internet information to your end-users;
they might want to view it for themselves. If they question your info,
remind them that you can't be responsible for the reliability of the
info you've done your best to find. Transferring judgment about
information reliability to your end-user is not unprofessional. When
someone requests info from the Internet, that's what you give them.
You don't say, 'The public library is probably a better place to find
what you want.' You don't undermine the People's Medium by pandering
to your end-user's doubts about it. But you can offer to verify your
information from other Internet sources. Try to make your end-users
understand that there are degrees of online 'research.' If they want
information of assured truth, that'll require more retrieval time
than the simple discovery of some apparently-good information.
"Let me conclude this topic, for now, by saying something you can
quote me on. So far as I know, I'm the first to say it---but you
can search the Usenet and Web to verify that, if you desire." The
class snickered at this remark. "It's a variation on an oft-quoted
Internet verity." He wrote on the whiteboard:
Information wants to be reliable.
"What does this mean? It means that, unlike errors in printed info,
Internet information errors are easily corrected. And that if info
needs correction, it probably will be corrected because Web authors
want their content to be viewed as correct. You've undoubtedly seen
webpages where the author solicits corrections; these are the better
webpages, the more-reliable ones. Other webpages welcome unsolicited
corrections, so long as they view these corrections as facts, not as
opinions. This human tendency means that Web information wants to be
reliable because its creators and publishers want it to be reliable.
"Remember that information is animated, not from within itself,
but by the actions of its creators, its retrievers, and its users.
"Forum info wants, rather less than webpage info, to be reliable.
This is primarily because of the ephemerality of forum postings---
here today, gone tomorrow, so to speak. That doesn't mean that some
forum posters don't correct themselves. And it sure doesn't mean they
aren't corrected by other posters!... It may be worthwhile to follow
up on a relevant, factual forum posting by examining all the replies
to it. This procedure often results in information correction and/or
supplementation. These useful corrective processes are the norm in
discussion forums." The Rector paused to check his lecture notes.
"I know what Internet verity he's going to quote, next," boasted
Kevin to Marylou.
"Don't spoil it for me," she replied. As if I didn't know.
"Early in the history of the personal computer, and well before the
Internet became a household fixture, Stewart Brand, the publisher of
The Whole Earth Catalog, put into a sentence of his conference
speech a remark which has probably become the most controversial
verity of the Computer Age. He said,
'...information wants to be free...'
"History has almost forgotten the context in which this remark
appeared. You can find it on the Web if you're interested---and
you know how to search for it. Those five words are still quoted
as an axiom of truth by Internet users. They'll probably never be
forgotten because they articulate such a widespread, idealistic
"But what do they mean? Do they mean that it's wrong to seek money
for information put up on the Web? No.... Do they mean that webpage
authors can use on their pages any information they find? No.... Then,
what does this arguable statement mean? Is it a truth or just a wish?
"I believe it is true, but only if it's carefully interpreted.
Unlike reliability, freedom is not an attribute of information. But
on the Internet, information does seem to exhibit a 'freedom dynamic,'
a phenomenon which is brought about by its handlers. Information on
the Internet is often transferred freely from one place to another,
usually from places of information originality to places of secondary
usage. It may then propagate from secondary places to further places.
Text that's useful in one place will often be found useful in other
places, and it'll be copied and used in those other places. This can
be viewed as a useful societal process if the info is truly factual.
"Such information transfer is accomplished by several processes,
ranging from 'permissive use' to shameless theft and use without
permission or attribution. Ownership and copyright are scarcely
respected on the Internet, mostly because secondary users---'thieves'
to information originators---almost never seek to charge others for
the use of this 'transferred' information. They just want to display
it in their forum postings or on their webpages for its relevance.
If these secondary users ponder the ethics of this situation, they
probably see such info-transfer as 'fair usage,' like book reviewers
are allowed, without permission, to quote from the books they review.
The Rector wagged a finger at his students.
"But there's a big difference between a quotation from a written
work and the entire copying and reproduction of one. In our mind's
logic, we understand this. But in practice, we openly use the works
of others for our own purposes on the Internet, especially when they
are fairly short. When we weave unattributed passages of other works
into our own writings, or claim entire works as our own, however,
that's plagiarism, a practice that's unethical from any rational
viewpoint. But in speaking of information transfer, I'm talking
mostly about attributed material which is simply 'redisplayed'
on the Internet without the permission of its originators.
This questionable practice is widespread.
"Internet information is thus transferred so freely that it seems
to want to escape to other places where it's needed. Realistically,
information wants to be free because so many Internet users want it
to be free. This desire for freedom strongly animates information.
"I've seen so many forum postings and webpages which reproduce
someone else's textual material that I've become accustomed to the
convenience of having information where I discover it---rather than
at its place of origin, where I might have to search for it with
some difficulty. In the world of the professional information
supplier, finding info quickly wherever it's most-easily found,
is a great convenience.
"When I read a Usenet or Web forum posting in which a poster has
reproduced a copyrighted article from a newspaper or magazine for
the convenience of others in a discussion group, I blame no one, I
find no fault. When a webpage contains something copied from another
source, I thank the webpage author for the convenience of his copying
and I praise him for its relevance to his page. That's the reality
of my usage of the Internet. I want information to be free, in that
"But if I find that my own original text has been impermissibly used,
even with attribution, I may feel quite differently. If I'm a generous
soul, I'll forgive my copier and I'll even feel pride that my work was
worth copying and reusing. If I find my work plagiarized by someone
who more-or-less claims it as his own, I think I'm entitled to take
a dim view of the situation... and be mad as hell about it!"
This forceful remark provoked laughter in the classroom.
"Right on," approved Kevin.
"As student infoseekers, you'll delight in finding information quickly
in secondary places. When you become professional infoseekers, though,
it's better to cite retrieved info as from its original online source,
if you can easily discover that source. You should always present
Internet information as copied-and-reused material if its original
source is offline, and you should cite that offline source to your
end-users so they'll know where it originated.
"Okay. Bring up my homework assignment page. Today's homework is to
examine and ponder an instance of Internet information transfer to
a place on the Web where you might not expect to find it:
Find a state university website where academic personnel have
collected and made available copyrighted articles from newspapers,
magazines, and journals about the 1959 earthquake in Montana
in which a landslide created a new lake in the Madison River,
later named 'Earthquake Lake.' List the URL of one of these
'secondary usage' webpages and describe its contents. Are there
any indications on the webpages reproducing these articles that
the university had the permission of those newspapers, magazines
and journals to reprint their material? Should there be?
Later, Kevin remarked to Marylou, "So, information wants to be free
because it's dumb and doesn't know any better. Is that it?"
"You could say that," she replied, dryly. "But I agree with the
Rector: information wants to be free because so many of its users
desire it to be free. And that desire animates it to move about."
"Marylou, you're so literal you'd probably sink like a stone in
Earthquake Lake. There's no chance you'd float."
THE END OF PART FIVE
Next: Part Six, "Hacking The Benefactor, Turning a Bus"
© 2002 by Frederick Rustam. Frederick Rustam is a retired civil
servant. He formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of
Defense. He writes science fiction for Web ezines as a hobby. He
studies and enjoys the Internet as a hobby.