Never mind the quality, feel the bandwidth


No-one doubts the quantity of information on the internet, what about its quality?

I’m not going to attempt to estimate the amount of on-line information. There are millions of web sites. Each site can have one page or thousands.

Let’s just agree there is a lot of information out there – a few gazillion words and pictures.

Information worth fighting for

It’s the kind of resource our ancestors would have killed for. Indeed, ancient wars were fought over access to knowledge repositories.

Would they fight the same wars to get net access? Probably, our ancestors liked a good scrap.

While the modern Internet might be chock-a-block with information, it’s light on knowledge. It is not always the place to seek wisdom.

Let’s face it, how many dead bodies would you walk over to unearth the lyrics of ‘Spice Up Your Life’?

Thin on knowledge

Catalogues of high-resolution photographs showing supermodels in bathing costumes might be aesthetically pleasing. But unless you are a rather slow teenage boy wanting to study female anatomy, the knowledge content is slight.

Likewise all those painstakingly collected lists of quotes by The Simpsons characters: entertainment value high, enlightenment quotient low.

Then there are the millions of dumb home pages filled with photos of cuddly animals, basketball stars and soft porn princesses. Adventurous, but unimaginative amateur developers decorate pages with sound clips of heavy metal or rap. Some even craft complex Java scripts that do nothing special.

If you’re brave, you can find some of the most atrocious poetry ever written.

Surf the net at random and you’ll find page after page of pure rubbish, mind-numbing sameness and precious little gold.

Professional rubbish too

Of course, the web isn’t just the domain of gifted (or otherwise) non-professionals. These days commercial sites run by highly trained specialists dominate. Of these, most either sell something directly, or people who sell things finance them.

Which dilutes their value as independent information sources. How much credence would you give to free on-line personal finance advice given to you by a bank?

In engineer-speak, the Internet has a low signal-to-noise ratio.

That is, you have to sort through a great deal of rubbish to find anything worthwhile. But that implies a message is there. There might not be. Even if you know exactly what you are looking for and use the best search tools, you can still come badly unstuck.

A chilling example

A medical doctor recently surveyed 20 web sites offering help with self-treatment of common ailments. Each site looked plausible. Yet of the 20 sites, only three offered advice that squared with accepted medical procedure. A number of the sites offered seriously flawed advice. Some were no more than quackery. We’re not talking about cultural differences; we are talking snake oil. Sooner or later, real people with real health problems are going to roll up at these sites, take the advice at face value and damage themselves.

This isn’t funny.

In my view, the worst aspect of this problem is that the good, well-researched information is drowned out by the sheer volume of trash. Web-boosters used to say users would learn to recognise good information from bad by its brand. So, for example, you might trust a news report from the ABC, BBC or CNN, but not from the National Enquirer. There’s certainly some truth in the idea. But would you know which brand to turn to for medical information or financial advice?