The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Google, Wikipedia and the journey from ‘information’ to ‘knowledge’

I watched a fascinating programme on TV last night, Google and the World Brain (available on BBC iPlayer for the next few days for those in the UK) about the whole Google Books project.  It was a story I already knew a little about, but the programme brought lots of different ideas and perspectives together in a very interesting and very watchable way. For those of you not familiar with Google Books, it's an attempt by Google to scan/digitize all the world’s books and make them available online, rather like a huge public library. At first, it sounds like an exciting idea, making ‘knowledge’ available to everyone, but of course, it actually raises lots of important questions; among others about copyright and intellectual property (which I may return to in a later post), but also about access to, dissemination of and mediation of information. For me, it also raised lots of questions about the difference between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’, which a lot of the proponents of Google Books on last night’s programme seemed to use interchangeably.

The proponents of Google Books, and the whole Google project in general, suggest that by collecting all the world’s information in one place, it will allow everyone to access ‘knowledge’ instantly; a kind of ‘world brain’ (an allusion to HG Wells). They put forward the example of a computer that was able to win Jeopardy, a TV general knowledge quiz. And yes, I can see how a clever search algorithm might quickly and easily come up with ‘correct’ answers to simple quiz questions; the capital of Bolivia or the chemical symbol for iron or the year when John Lennon was shot. But is that really ‘knowledge’? It seems to me, there’s a very long and blurry line from uncontested ‘facts’ to ‘information’ to real ‘knowledge’. And crucially, how you navigate your way through the ‘facts’ and ‘information’ determines what ‘knowledge’ you come out with at the end. Until now, that journey has been influenced by your access to information (which in turn is determined by your access to education,  your wealth and status, your gender, your geographical location, etc.) and how the information is presented to you, how it is mediated. Few of us, outside of the most elite academic circles, receive our information first-hand from primary sources; we read about things in books, newspapers, or magazines, we hear things on TV and radio, from our friends, teachers and colleagues. And of course, all of that is mediated by culture, by politics, by our world view. Do we want all our information to be mediated by Google, an American commercial giant? Do we want what we learn about any given topic to be determined by an algorithm written from a particular perspective?  Do we want a search engine that learns what we ‘like’ and only presents us with what it thinks we want to read? Or, to widen things out beyond Google, do we want ‘facts’ to be determined by consensus? Do we want “Wikiality” where if enough people support a statement on Wikipedia, it becomes ‘the truth’? (Thanks to Tyson Seburn for the link to this article containing this great term coined by satirist Stephen Colbert). For me, the apparent ‘democratization of information’ that has come with the internet, Web 2.0, crowdsourcing and the like comes with a lot of caveats.

As an EAP teacher over the past 7 or 8 years, the importance of teaching students how to assess the information they come across has grown immeasurably. The rather dismissive, “stick to what’s in the university library and Wikipedia is banned” position is no longer tenable. Students do and will expect to find most of their information online, so we have no choice as teachers but to help them navigate the best path through. It’s a pressing issue for all educators, but with such a large proportion of the information out there online in English, I think it’s particularly relevant to ELT teachers, and not just in academic circles. With students from different cultural backgrounds and with different levels of digital literacy, on top of the blurring effect that working in a second language can have (grasping basic meanings, but sometimes missing the subtle details), giving our students the skills to make informed judgments about what they read is an essential part of being a language teacher in the modern world.

For many of us, myself included, up until now this has probably been rather patchy and ad hoc, based on our own experiences. Presented with a range of dictionary websites, I can pretty quickly pick out the good from the not-so-good and the downright rubbish, because it’s my area of expertise and I know what to look out for. But when an Engineering student hands in a piece of writing with a reference to a science website, I can go to the website and, aside from a few obvious clues in one direction or the other, I’m really not in a position to accurately judge its reliability. So my resolution for my summer teaching stint this year is to become better informed and more organized in the way I teach my students the skills they need to become more discerning consumers of the information that’s out there, in the hope that they might do a better job of translating that ‘information’ into rich and meaningful ‘knowledge’.

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Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

It's such a difficult task to determine reliability beyond the four key points that many academic circles have suggested there are. Not everything is as clear cut as it seems and even furthermore difficult to articulate well to students when they find one we're not so familiar with. I'll be interested to see what your investigation in your own development in this regard provides you. Share it with me, please.

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