Around the turn of the twenty-first century, reporters were writing at a frenzied pitch about the coming Information Age. We would be living, they said, in a time when communication would be instantaneous and virtually costless; a period when computing power would grow so quickly, we wouldn't even know what to use it for anymore; an era when fiber optic cable would reach every American home and solve a host of problems at the speed of light. They weren't all wrong. Eight years later, we are well into a strange decade during which information has generally been more accessible and more abundant than ever before. Yet the multitude of predictions foretelling the dawn of edified utopia have missed their mark. Though we know more about our world's problems, and we know more, sooner, they remain still, problems.
What, then, was the point? Are we better off now than we were ten years ago, in 1998, when Google was a orthographically incorrect mathematical term, and seven-year-olds lacked cell phones? It's a question that could spawn endless debate, but that there is no conclusive answer should in and of itself be enough to give one pause. Like water, information is necessary for survival, but unless you know how to swim, you can easily drown.
It's no longer considered news that there is "too much" information in our daily lives, but interestingly, information shares another aqueous property, which is that it can dissolve other substances. It was taken for granted ten years ago that the information shared worldwide over the internet would be helpful because it would be true. Mix a few lies or even some mundane bias into an otherwise true stream of facts, however, and suddenly the value of the information in question is no longer guaranteed to be beneficial; there is simply a chance that it might be.
We know this paradox quite well today, by the name Wikipedia. The chances are quite good that any given Wikipedia article will actually be correct, but unlike the Encyclopedia Britannica, the editors sometimes have incentive to skew the facts. For example, in exchange for a sizeable donation, Wikipedia's founder Jim Wales was recently reported to have "cleaned up" his donor's encyclopedia entry. We have always lived with some small statistical margin of error in our information sources—even the Encyclopedia Britannica isn't perfect—but it's telling that we've grown so comfortable with systems that clearly don't even provide incentives for people to tell the truth. At least in Silicon Valley, this conflation between what is popular and what is true is amazingly widespread.
The fact of the matter is that most people are willing to gamble when it comes to the veracity of their information, and so the more information there is to be had, the more people gamble. What's alarming is that we're gambling on things we didn't used to. Riding on the coattails of popular social news sites "digg" and "Reddit," CNN's "iReport" distributes unverified news stories, discovered by others, that are likely to be popular. The typical blog frequently disseminates biased and opinionated information, often as if it were fact.
Bad information doesn't always have to come from the internet, though. James Frey, Ishmael Beah, Misha Defonseca and Margaret Seltzer all published memoirs, implying that their books were accounts of their lives based in fact, when in fact, all five books were based largely on fiction. Despite the newfound ease with which each author's literary agent, publisher and book reviewer could access information on their subject's lives, the facts went unchecked, and books were purchased by the thousands—until the publishers realized that they had gambled and lost. Some of the books were recalled.
Others remained in bookstores nationwide. After all, when you gamble with information, often times no one comes to collect—not immediately. If books were selling, then why not use the explosion of information about the books to sell some more? The answer is deceptively simple: because in the case of the false memoirs, the word "memoir" would lose its meaning—and how ironic it would be if compilations of words led to the downfall of words themselves. If words had no meaning, there would be no books.
After ten years, it seems clear that we in the United States are no more in the Information Age than the Indian subcontinent is in the Water Age whenever a typhoon hits the mainland. With so much investment, all we have been able to produce is a mockingly literal implementation of those two words, in which we are drowning in information we aren't even sure is reliable. Though we can search through it, we still cannot sort the good from the bad without exerting an extraordinary amount of effort. Champions of easy access to data abound, while the few champions of data integrity that exist barely have a voice in government or industry.
The choices of the past decade have given the timeless "quantity versus quality" debate new meaning. For ten years we have made vast strides in the amount of information that people are able to access. Here's to hoping that in ten years, we'll have made comparable progress in information quality, having moved on to solving bigger problems—a water crisis, perhaps.