January 18, 2011

Fooled by the Status Quo

Filed under: business,internet,media,personal — Erik Dobberkau @ 00:58

It’s always amazing how one’s imagination is being fooled by the status quo though the own memory should tell otherwise. When Wikipedia celebrated thier 10-year anniversary three days ago, I was thinking back when I actually started using it. In 2001 I didn’t — and it’s worth noting it’s the same year I started using that new search engine called Google. It occured to me that when writing my diploma thesis on analogue audio compressor circuitry design and implementation in 2002, finding mere bits of information was actually work that was not too far from the days when you had to go to the library and skim through boxes of index cards. The whole thing just went off well because a fellow student was writing his thesis on EQ design so we could update each other about our latest findings.

Just a few years later, maybe in early 2005, I was using Wikipedia to pull together a script for my students’ electronics lecture, just as an expanded appendix for all the stuff I couldn’t cover in detail because the lecture was quite dense already. Only 4 years after its birth, Wikipedia had become the go-to resource for every geek topic, not to mention the thousands of other sites that had spawned up on stuff like audio circuitry. But what was funny back then is that most of them still referenced the same sources that we had to dig out years before.

Today, more or less everybody is online, be it as a consumer or content creator, but you better not assume that the absolute number of “web literates” has increased proportionally. In this is becoming a problem, because at some point, we’re passing it on to the next generation. According to an interview with two media experts published in the German magazine “Der Spiegel”, there is a shocking deficiency in media competence among teachers, and as they point out, it is the responsibility of schools to educate the kids in the why and how of media, because it’s the only place where all of these kids go — and you don’t know how well-informed their parents are in terms of Web and so forth.

The real problem is of course not media but responsibility, and it’s hard to teach responsibility because it’s rather something you learn. The digital era has a massive downside compared to the glory days before it: As Google put it, the Web doesn’t forget. People do. If you broke a window, it’d be a shock at first, you’d get punished, and some years later you’d have a funny story to tell. I don’t want to spread paranoia here, but in absence of a better excuse a digital record of you having smashed a window in your child days might serve as an unspoken reason why you’re not getting a job. So it may well mean the chance of anyone getting a second chance (to do better) will go down, just because you’re the one who, as is anybody on one subject or the other. The Web is no good place to start when you haven’t learned the analogue model. The only advantage we have today is that we still have analogue models, because there a only few web services that don’t have a real world counterpart.

On the other hand, it’s hard to draw a line in terms of when available information is to be used fairly. When a government can use information published on WikiLeaks to prosecute tax evaders — no matter if this information was obtained legally or not, it’s available now, and it’s hard to argument that one shouldn’t use it to enforce the law — it seems unfit to force an employer to not consider dubious information they got about their job candidates. It’s again a question of responsibility. And as we know, when faced with the opportunity, most people will prefer to get rid of it instead of taking some more, something they learned along the way too. Everything scales, you just need enough iterations to make a small difference to yield a large result. It actually works both ways. That’s why Wikipedia won.

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