Saturday, September 4, 2010

Too much information - is it dangerous?

There is so much information on the net. Too much, I sometimes feel.
Its not just the sheer amount of information that bothers me. Its the accessibility and more, its usability that is causing me stress.
We have heard this before now - children can complete their school projects by clicking a few sites here and there and downloading the information that they want. Its a different matter that all projects from a class must be looking alike.
What you want to know? Whatever it is - just Google it. That's the way to go about gathering information now.
My stress has gone up a few notches since I came back from Shivpuri (near Rishikesh) having conducted a staff training program for the outdoor safety instructors from Snow Leopard Adventures, Delhi. Two instances stand out in my mind.
We were talking about safety aspects when dealing with adventure activities that involve ropes and mainly- HEIGHT. The topic veered around to the use of ascenders (commonly called Jumar) and then went on to using a prusik knot. I spent better part of one full day explaining the intricacies of a prusik knot and its do's and dont's to the group.
On another day, we had a session about snakes. I mean - safety aspects regarding snakes and snakebite on an outdoor site. I wished I could have shown them live examples and given them an opportunity to actually handle a snake but that was not possible. So I had to make do with a whiteboard (and the participants had to make do with my horrendous sketching skills!) Obviously, the key topic was identifying whether a snake is poisonous or not.
After I was back in Pune, I did some searching around on the net on these two topics and was swamped by some thousands of websites, blogs, e-forums etc. that provided every bit of useful and useless information on these critical topics.
What would happen if someone who has half-cooked knowledge reads all the information and makes a decision whether a snake is poisonous or not? I shudder to imagine the consequences. for example - here is the description of a Russel's Viper from the internet - (sourced from Wikipedia)
Quote -
The nostrils are large, in the middle of a large, single nasal scale. The lower edge of the nasal touches the nasorostral. The supranasal has a strong crescent shape and separates the nasal from the nasorostral anteriorly. The rostral is as broad as it is high. The crown of the head is covered with irregular, strongly fragmented scales. The supraocular scales  are narrow, single, and separated by 6–9 scales across the head. The eyes are large, flecked with yellow or gold, and each is surrounded by 10–15 circumorbital scales. There are 10–12 supralabials, the 4th and 5th of which are significantly larger. The eye is separated from the supralabials by 3–4 rows of suboculars. There are two pairs of chin shields, the front pair of which are notably enlarged. The two maxillary bones support at least two and at the most five or six pairs of fangs at a time: the first are active and the rest replacements.
Unquote -
Of course, all the information is accurate. (Sometimes it is not accurate either, but that's a different matter altogether.) But does it make sense to someone who has partial knowledge about vipers? One may argue that this information is meant for those who already know the subject well and are looking for reference material. My argument is - if someone knows the subject well then s/he might not bother to look up Wikipedia anyway. My worry is about those who don't know enough and are looking for information.
Many people regard fire and wheel as the greatest life-changing inventions/discoveries for mankind. Sure, they are important. But I consider two other inventions that have markedly shaped the lives of human beings.
1. The printing press
2. Internet
Both served the same purpose in a way. The democratization of knowledge. What was once known to a handful of people could be now disseminated to a large polulation. The printing press achieved this with some thousand individuals, the internet exploded this to several billion.
Don't get me wrong. I am NOT against making information accessible. I am only worried about people who read and conclude that now know it all. Let me use another example from the same case to illustrate this -
Quote -
When threatened they form a series of S-loops, raise the first third of the body and produce a hiss that is supposedly louder than that of any other snake.
Unquote -
No matter how many times one reads this and claims to have 'understood', it is impossible to compare it with the hiss of a LIVE Russell's Viper. Once you have actually heard it, you will never forget it. Now some techie can put forth the argument that the hiss can also be heard online. But I disagree. Hearing a viper hissing when you are sitting comfortably in your home tapping away at the keyboard cannot be compared to hearing it live.
There is too much information already. A lot of it is useless (few zillion pictures of Bikini Babes and Celebrity Chicks, just to quote a few examples). An equally large lot of it is dangerous, according to me. And I am not even talking about information on how to make bombs and such other stuff. I am talking about information about many risky situations that is easily accessible to anyone who knows where to look for it.
Do I have a solution to this? I admit that I don't.

4 comments:

g2 said...

You make a very good point approximately at the same time I was thinking about the same issue. Students can just write essays from wikipedia as opposed to doing research in the library old-school style. But isn't it time we question our traditional education system and try to change it so that it is driven by originality and creativity rather than just "knowing stuff"?

Regarding snakes... well you should be scared :p All we can do is hope people are not stupid enough to believe that they know enough to go and try it in real life! The bottom line is... Internet has its limitations.. you can't learn swimming online :p

Pushkaraj said...

@ g2 - Gosh, I never thought of the risks of learning swimming online! Am glad I learnt it the right way...

Abha Joshi said...

A wise person knows what information to filter out....
I think the internet is a wonderful pool of information. It all depends on how well you can use it.

Pushkaraj said...

@ Abha Joshi - Of course, I have no argument about net being a great source of information. You have simply echoed my worry by saying that a 'wise' person knows what to take. My worry is that wisdom levels of netizens varies from sublime to ridiculous, but the speed and width of internet penetration does not factor this!