Power, error and a “cruel historian”

There was a short but fascinating article posted on the Association of College and Research Libraries’ blog earlier in the month called “Information is Power — Even When it is Wrong.”  Starting with a truly frightening story about how easily misinformation is spread on the web, librarian Amy Fry discusses some important lessons that we not only can, but must, learn about information in the digital age.

Misinformation is not new, of course, and in an election year we are reminded that it is probably most often distributed intentionally.  But good, old-fashioned error can also account for much mistaken information, and Fry’s article is a reminder of the tremendous and irreversible power that such errors gain; they quite literally take on a life of their own, and become, is some sense, as influential as truth.

Fry’s lessons are deceptive in their simplicity; but they remind us that simple rules are often the best guide to practice.  Her first rule — “Metadata is important” — codifies what librarians have know all along; information is only as good as its source, date and application.  Two other rules remind us that the Web is a different, and frightening, place in many ways.  That aggregators can mislead and that Google possesses enormous power to shape thoughts and beliefs on a massive scale are lessons too important for us to forget.  And finally, there is the powerful truth that there is no substitute for critical thinking.  If we all ever really learn that lesson, the world will be a much better place.

Fry’s article reminds me of a book I have been reading lately, “The Future of Reputation” by Daniel Solove.  His analysis of how easy it is to be subject to a viral attack is another example of the new conditions we have to adjust to as scholarship, and so much else in our lives, begins to move at the speed of digital.  Solove posits a fundamental tension, in the digital world of instant mass communication, blogs and social networking site, between freedom and privacy.  We now have the means to express ourselves more freely and fully than ever before, and to make a potentially permanent record of the things we say about ourselves and others.  The danger, of course, is that “the Internet is a cruel historian” that allows others to easily discover all the things we have written about ourselves or that others have written about us, whether they are true or not.  Privacy and reputation are in jeopardy from this new expressive freedom.

Solove’s book is sobering from many perspectives, including as a reminder of the world in which scholarship is carried out today.  With so much preliminary work on scholarly ideas being done by e-mail, in GoogleDocs, or on blogs, we need to remember that our tentative ideas and first drafts, our wild proposals and our silly comments, may not ever really be completely gone.  Errors and misstatements may live forever, and they may spread around the world in seconds; it will now require a special effort to ensure that there is a final “version of record” of any piece of scholarship, something that has not been much of a concern in the past.  There are tremendous opportunities for collaboration and more open commentary and correction in digital scholarship, but it is also an environment that requires a new level of awareness and attention.