Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Knowledge, information, and generations

Loyd Case at ExtremeTech wrote a fascinating comparison of how different generations view information:

"I think ... that the baby boomers tend to view information as simply words, pictures and diagrams. My older daughter regards information as something that's mutable, and that flows, not as something fixed and chiseled in stone. We see that on the Internet, too, as people experiment with mashups of different media, with information (data) mixing freely with algorithms to create different ways of looking at the world."

Case attributes the difference to the difficulties my generation faced in simply acquiring information the old-fashioned way, through laborious research using alphabetized categories and the Dewey Decimal system, in contrast to the ease with which today's students can locate almost any fact with a few keystrokes. My own students give me disbelieving looks when I tell them that a 30-second piece of research they've performed on LexisNexis would have taken up to an hour during my undergraduate days.

Case contends that this ease of finding information is also "creating a generation of skeptical kids who can better sort out bad information from good information." Our generation, by contrast, "had to rely on editors and peer review to uncover bad information. Even then, bad information would propagate, and would often take years to correct."

While much hand-wringing occurs each time a factual error is discovered on Wikipedia, it's astonishing how quickly mistakes are corrected online, bad data replaced with good data, the vigilance of the online information community in spotting errors. The result, Case says, is that the new generation is one of "editors, synthesizers, and creators" equipped with tools to build knowledge structures we could never have imagined.

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