Practical Technology

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Lies, Damned Lies, and the Internet

Some fellow journalists and I were talking the other day about how many people had gotten the answer for the SD Times trivia question, “What did the ‘F” stand for in Edgar F. Codd” stand for from Wikipedia.Codd, in case you don’t know, is usually seen as the founder of relational database theory.My smart-aleck comment to this was that this showed a level of trust seldom seem except in lemmings and concussed baby ducks.

Before all the Wikipedia fans rise up in arms, I’m not talking about just Wikipedia, I’m talking about trusting in anything you find on the Internet.

The real question is whether any information on the Internet can be trusted as a reliable source. My answer? No. Hell, no.

For more on that, may I direct you to Nicholas Carr’s masterful summing up of why Wikipedia is not the be-all and end-all of human knowledge.

You see, putting trust in any form of media is a choice, but the Internet is especially untrustworthy.

All too many people have mistaken the net’s speed and ease-of-use for truth and reliability.

There is nothing about the collective mind of online communities and wikis that must lead to wisdom.

Yes, crowds can be wise. Crowds can also burn witches, cause financial panics, and elect George W. Bush president.

Please, let us hear no more of the wisdom of crowds.

Personally, I subscribe to the theory that a crowd’s intelligence is the square root of its members’ average intelligence.

Still, it’s not just that the Web in filled with bad information. So are books, newspapers, magazines, etc., etc., etc.

But, in the dawning years of the 21st century, for some reason, again that speed and ease of use, we assume that the truth is only a Google search away. It just isn’t so.

In addition, Web-borne information goes to rot faster than it does on any other kind of media.

You don’t need to look for any big-issues to find such the proof of this.

A few years back, Mary Jo Foley, myself, and several other Sm@rt Partner (a deceased Ziff Davis online news site and magazine) and eWEEK writers did gavel-to-gavel online coverage of Microsoft vs. Department of Justice trial.

It was one of the first, huge stories that the online press was ready to tackle. We did, if I say so myself, a bang-up job of covering the story.

This is perfect source material for a history of the trial, right? This is exactly the kind of background you need when you look at Microsoft’s current legal problems in the European Union and South Korea, right? And, better still, it’s only a quick Google search and a click away, right?

Wrong.

90 percent of those stories are already gone.

The sites closed, the stories were removed from Web servers and there’s little left except for links leading nowhere.

Yes, there is the Wayback Machine. But, at best, the Internet archives give only a fossil of those stories.

The bulk of those tales were written from five to seven years ago. It might as well be five to seven hundred years ago.

Last, but not least, on the Web there is no such thing as a permanent record. If someone doesn’t like the record, they change it.

I’m not just talking about overt wiki vandalism and the like.

A number here, a comma there, is all that’s needed to change a prediction from being dead-wrong to right on the money.

Or, to borrow a line from my favorite television doctor, Gregory House, MD, “It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what.”

On the Web, lying is easier than ever. Remember that, the next time you go hunting for the truth on the Internet.

As it happens, I try very hard not to lie–as the saying goes it’s easier to tell the truth because then you don’t have to keep track of who you lied to about what. Indeed, one of the reasons I run Practical Technology, is that so I have a record of what I think of as some of my more significant stories. And, if you look at the site, you’ll see I’ve kept some stories where I was dead wrong.

Of course, you only have my word for it and I have only included stories that I thought were significant. Take my work with a grain of salt as well.

P.S.

The F.? According to Wikipedia, it stood for Frank. Or could it have been Franklin? He was born at a time when full names were the rule for formal names rather than the modern tendency to use nicknames.

Darned if know. Anyone look at his birth certificate? College diploma?

Ah, I thought not.

A version of this story appeared first in SD Times News in November 2005.

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