Feelin' Lucky?

By Bob Seidensticker

(Back to article)

There’s a button on the Google home page labeled “I’m Feeling Lucky.” Ever click it? Instead of giving a ranked list of the sites that best match your search terms, it bypasses that step and takes you directly to the first site. So—are you feeling lucky? Are you ready to roll the dice and see what comes up?

Sometimes we quickly get the information we need, but too often we must wade through inappropriate matches. Perhaps I want information on the metal lead but get matches for the verb lead, or perhaps the word foresight is confused with a dozen companies and organizations with that name.

One of the great strengths of the Internet is that anyone can publish. But one of the great weaknesses of the Internet is … anyone can publish. Writers’ delight in seeing their work in print is rarely shared by the reader. We information seekers must burrow through this information landfill of irrelevant chaff, misinformation, and porn to find what we need.

Related Articles on CIO Update
Be Skeptical About the “Next Big Thing”

The Rise of Shadow IT

Internet Visionaries: Hope, Fear (And Loathing?)

Birds, Frogs and … Brogs?

The Challenge

Another way of looking at the Internet sees it as a convenient portal into a rapidly growing mountain of information. It’s been said, for example, that a big city newsstand contains more information than did the fabled Library of Alexandria. And the Internet contains the newsstand’s information, plus what it held yesterday and last week and last year, plus much more than just magazines and newspapers. This gives a glimpse into just how much the Internet holds.

But let’s explore this, since it holds a few lessons for evaluating the Internet.

That newsstand might also hold more information than the collected works of Shakespeare, but so what? To compare the Library of Alexandria to a newsstand’s worth of information is like comparing an intricate glass heirloom to its weight in sand.

The Library contained half a million priceless documents containing literature, science, and history from every civilization around the Mediterranean. Mere information or news is quite different from knowledge or wisdom.

Another problem is the comparison suggests that only now do we have access to this fire-hose of information. And yet the comparison could just as easily have been made over 150 years ago. Printing, which had changed little since Guttenberg’s day, was revolutionized in the early 1800s as first the steam press and then the rotary press increased print speeds by a factor of one hundred.

Newspapers had been expensive, but the new penny newspaper changed that. There was a paper for nearly every political, ethnic, or occupation category. Cheaper printing also gave more convenient access to books and to reference material such as encyclopedias—it wasn’t the Internet that first brought information to the masses.

We must remember two other caveats of the Internet as an information source. First, the Internet can’t access all information. Vast amounts are copyrighted and available only in libraries or bookstores. Some is past copyright but simply hasn’t been made available on the Internet. There’s life in the venerable library yet.

Second, keep in mind that news gathering for the Internet is the same as for all other news media. A journalist must hear of a story and either travel to the site or telephone someone for an interview, whether the story is to run in a newspaper, on TV, or at a news website. And the Internet wasn’t the first to provide coverage from the location of breaking news or provide immediate access to the story—radio and TV did this decades ago.

When the transmission of information was expensive, only the most important was passed along. As costs dropped, more information of less importance made the cut.

For the past few centuries, the most important information always had an outlet. As bandwidth opened up—first, newspapers and telegraph capacity, and then film, radio, TV, and now the Internet—increasing amounts of information of decreasing importance had an outlet.

The newest categories of information are the least important. Before blogs, there were newspaper columns. Before podcasts, there were radio programs. Someone who didn’t have a voice before the Internet, didn’t have a voice for a reason.

We have an increasing problem of information overload, but the basics of information gathering and prioritizing haven’t changed. Analysis remains vital. The core challenges of running a business are constant—customer service, a competitive and energized workforce, and great products are as important as always. And the fundamental problems that perplex society are not solved simply by more information.

The Internet is a marvelous tool that gives us access to a deluge of information, but let’s remember that it’s just one in a long line of tools.

Bob Seidensticker is an engineer who writes and speaks on the topic of technology change. A graduate of MIT, Bob has more than 25 years of experience in the computer industry. He is author of Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change and holds 13 software patents.