Saturday, January 24, 2009

The new information gatekeepers

Wouldn't it be something if the vaunted promise of the world wide web to deliver diverse voices and robust competition of ideas actually ends up limiting choices and concentrating intellectual power in ever fewer hands?

Absurd, right? Well, maybe not.

Nicholas Carr argues here that things seem to be going just that way. Already, he asserts, the web has gone from being a "radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one ..." He describes a new information triumvirate – the web, Google and Wikipedia – as the most powerful arbiters of what we learn.

It’s hard to imagine that Wikipedia articles are actually the very best source of information for all of the many thousands of topics on which they now appear as the top Google search result. What’s much more likely is that the Web, through its links, and Google, through its search algorithms, have inadvertently set into motion a very strong feedback loop that amplifies popularity and, in the end, leads us all, lemminglike, down the same well-trod path - the path of least resistance.

I can think of lots of objections to that thesis. Despite some notable failures (China comes to mind) Google hasn't thus far demonstrated any overt or obvious bias in the way it sorts and displays information. (The bias could be there, of course; do you understand how the search algorithms work?)

And Wikipedia is the very essence of multi-source information, isn't it? Well, yes, I guess. Although Jimmy Wales is now talking about limiting the ways information gets added. He's a good guy, too, as far as I know – but do I want his judgment determining what ranks first on most Google searches?

More tellingly, what happens when Larry and Sergey aren't running Google? What happens after Jimmy Wales? Is a world grown ever more dependent on single-source information -- Just Google it. -- really a smarter, more intellectually independent place?

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