January 08, 2003

The weakening of the written word

With the explosion of the Information Age, there has been a great hoopla built about the easy accessibility of information. The great Information Divide it seems has been conquered. And Information is available to everyone and at everyplace. But what has probably been lost is the fact that this easy access to information has actually lessened the impact of information.

No, I am not talking about the Information overload that is causing people to spend lots of time just trying to find the information that is relevant to them. I am also not talking about the increase of information availability leading to people broadening themselves, speaking with reference to knowledge, and not gaining a sufficiently deep understanding at the same time.

What I am talking about is the relative weakening of the written word vis-a-vis the spoken word. Seems as though we have come a full circle, from the days before writing ever existed. When the only word was the spoken word. Now the Information age is restacking the odds for the spoken word - the word of the expert.

The reason is this. The explosion of the new era has driven down the costs of information disbursal - and the costs of information generation. Anyone can sit in front of a computer and can generate information - something like what I am doing now. This has meant that there is no automatic disincentive to generate information, which once allowed only those who actually had knowledge to embark upon disbursal. When a book was released, there was a certain certainty of quality associated with it. Though this has been coming down with the decrease in cost of publishing in the recent times, the information explosion has been among the last of nails onto its coffin so to speak.

The typical manifestation of it is seen in all sorts of situations. One is the proliferation of impersonation sites. These include sources of information that are not bonafide either by design or by accident. Those by design include the hoax sites, hoax email chains and so on. Those by accident include all the personal information sites which include and are not restricted to blog sites, information discussion fora, fun focus sites, ask a question sites etc. And the information is anything from health, to technology, to personal blacklisted email domains. These information sources have such a low signal to noise ration that it is increasingly becoming difficult to figure out signal from noise.

This has led to a rapid disillusioning of the information seeker. "I know this is true, I read it on the Internet" does not hold must water anymore. Once bitten twice shy, users are rapidly switching to not trusting the Internet for their informatino needs. Some who can actually separate the signal from noise are profiting, while there are a lot others for whom it is either mistrust or increasing exposure to quoting the wrong information.

Typically technology has responded too. A number of methods have come out which try to understand and review information. The volume of the Internet is so huge that it was deemed impossible to manually classify information. Hence there were a number of automatic, technical methods of information classification which came up. Some it seems succeeded, like the omnipresent google. However as with technology, somewhere the users got whiff of technology and go into the act of meta information manipulations. These moves is slowly rendering difficult data quality prediction using technology. The circle now is complete - it is back to man and manual methods to classify information. Back to the expert. May be technically it is the published word, but it is a good as the spoked word - the word of the expert.

A number of models which do this are currently in vogue. The about.com's initiative is one such effort. It aims to manually give the best sites of information for all the information needs of the Internet users. The other model is that of peer and continuous evaluation. Sites like experts-exchange and slashdot are typical of this method, where experts are the users and where these experts cull out the best of the information available. Hence is the relative weakening of the written word vis-a-vis the spoken word.



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