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Between the Lies

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I’ve just finished reading an excellent book by Andrew Keen called The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy. Quite apart from the alarmist title, it was an informative journey through some of the problems with society’s increasing reliance on the internet for information, when that information can rarely be verified and the source rarely accountable for what it provides. Keen spends a great deal of his book arguing that because the internet allows amateurs equal pegging with professionals and experts, the world as we know it will end. He’s not wrong: the way people find and use information will shift from traditional sources such as encyclopedias and books to more net-based research and fact-finding. One of Keen’s arguments centres on the fact that web users find it difficult to tell fact from fiction because it’s too easy to blur the lines between marketing spin and news, sites like Wikipedia have authors with agendas, and YouTube dares to have content that is both informative and entertaining. I don’t know about you, but I have never watched something on YouTube thinking ‘this is the absolute truth’. Maybe it’s my training as a journalist that gives me the skills to read between the lies, but it isn’t difficult to view web content with a degree of healthy scepticism. Unfortunately, not everybody possesses a degree of healthy scepticism, and this is what needs to be addressed. The rapid rise of the internet as a tool for research has meant a huge gap between ignorance and informed use of the internet. Some internet users-especially children-lack the ability to analyse information, question its source, and understand possible agendas. While it is difficult to ensure that all users have this education, schools have already begun the process of trying to provide this grounding. In primary school I had one class a week called ‘library’, which took place in said environment. The class was designed to teach students the best way to use the library for research, including reading Dewey numbers and weighing up the relevance of one book against another, which was particularly helpful, as we weren’t allowed to borrow more than two books on any one topic at a time. This is what is happening now with internet use, but like some of my classmates who never did understand the library system, not everybody will understand how to use the internet by the end of computer class. It doesn’t mean we can’t try. After all, if Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds could incite real panic in 1938, should we really be concerned about the blurring of fact and fiction on the internet in 2009? The internet doesn’t misinform people, people misinform people. I have confidence that a breed of savvy net user will evolve to restore equilibrium to the chaos of the internet. Just because this hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t; after all, the internet is still in its infancy and we as a society are still developing an understanding of its benefits, challenges and potential. Society cannot blame its tools when what’s really missing is the capacity to use them.

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