The Questors

by Frederick Rustam

 

Part Five, WHAT DOES INFORMATION WANT?



If you haven't read the previous parts of this story, follow the links below:

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four


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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.

_____________________________________________________________________

 

Information Reliability

 

"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

infotrieval.

 

"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,

in practice.

 

"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.

 

 

Information Transfer

 

"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

desire.

 

"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

sense.

 

"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.