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section heading icon     wetware

This page considers whether humans still have a role in search.

It covers -

subsection heading icon     introduction

Some of the founding myths of the net were an expression of populism, with notions that everyone online would be equal, everyone would be free and power structures would erode. One of those structures, of course, was the mediation of librarians and publishers between authors and readers, creators and consumers.

If the mediaeval injunction was 'first kill all the lawyers', the 1990s was marked by 'now dispense with all the librarians' - authority figures supposedly having the charisma of wet cement, a commitment to saying no in an environment where "information just wants to be free" and an inability to understand (or merely appreciate the revolutionary potential of) electronic networks.

That caricature was, at best, naive. Access to information is not necessarily equivalent to understanding. Access to a search engine does not mean that the user finds relevant information quickly and comprehensively. As the preceding pages have indicated, expertise in information retrieval and evaluation still matters.

That has been reflected in catchphrases that for many purposes -

  • 'the best search engine is a person'
  • 'wetware beats software and hardware'.

Expertise can be relevant in -

  • awareness of general and specialist search tools such as Google, WestLaw, Factiva and Medline
  • understanding of how those tools operate and of conventions for their use, of particular importance in exploiting tools such as LexisNexis that lack user-friendly, intuitive interfaces
  • developing search strategies that ensure appropriately comprehensive or granular information retrieval on a timely basis
  • evaluating information that is gained through searches, embodied in the notion of 'digital literacy'.

Much information can be found effectively (quickly, reliably and with appropriate comprehesiveness) by non-specialists. However, expertise in data retrieval and evaluation has not been banished by the net; the online 'information cornucopia' has indeed privileged people and institutions with information management skills.

subsection heading icon     power searching

[under development]

subsection heading icon     digital literacy

Paul Gilster's Digital Literacy (New York: Wiley 1997) characterised digital literacy as

the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers ... [Not] only must you acquire the skill of finding things, you must also acquire the ability to use those things in your life. Acquiring digital literacy for Internet use involves mastering a set of core competencies. The most essential of these is the ability to make informed judgments about what you find on-line.

Other educationalists have commented that acquisition (and assessment) of 'core competencies' is a recurrent concern, with K12 and higher education institutions emphasising 'critical thinking' - along with interpretation of film and electronic media - since at least the 1950s.

Lawrence Cremin thus differentiated between 'inert literacy' ("verbal and numerate skills required to comprehend instructions, perform routine procedures and complete tasks in a routine manner") and 'liberating literacy' ("command of both the enabling skills needed to search out information and the power of mind necessary to critique it, reflect upon it, and apply it in making decisions"). Australian curricula have similarly sought to encourage students to find, read and deconstruct both text and images in dealing with books, newspaper items, radio, television and film.

Gilster and some peers have suggested that 'new media' are qualitatively different, because -

  • information is more readily available
  • internal and external cues of quality and bias may be less discernable or deliberately deceptive
  • traditional gatekeepers such as teachers, librarians, expert editors and publishers may have been disintermediated.

Others have pointed to the potential impact of factors such as user -

  • laziness or pragmatism (if you can get what you need from a problematical source such as Wikipedia why search further or engage in forensics?)
  • resentment of authority (eg deliberate reliance on flawed online sources as an expression of adolescent rebellion and failure to engage with secondary school teaching)
  • culpability in 419 scams and joe jobs through a suspension of disbelief because of greed, love of scandal or willingness to believe the worst of public figures

or to -

  • the unfriendliness of some advanced search mechanisms
  • the reassurance provided by recycling the same information as peers, a practice sanctified in pop texts such as James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies & Nations (New York: Random 2004) but questioned in the more perceptive True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (New York: Wiley 2008) by Farhad Manjoo.

Responses have varied. Some observers have argued for the importance of training users to -

  • be aware of how presentation can influence perceptions of authority and bias
  • avoid searches centred on generic names
  • look for information about the objectives and credentials of content providers
  • check the currency of online information
  • make effective use of 'advanced search' features on major search engines such as Google
  • recognise that some information is trivial whereas reliance on other information may have serious legal, commercial or health impacts.

Others have argued that 'misreading' represents a digital divide, discussed in works such as the 2005 paper 'Web of lies? Historical knowledge on the Internet' by Daniel Cohen & Roy Rosenzweig in 10 First Monday 12 and Mark Warschauer's 2002 paper 'Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide' and Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide (Cambridge: MIT Press 2003).

The dimensions of that divide are unclear. Much commentary on the extent and significance of 'bad information' (and on user acceptance) is anecdotal. As with the print environment there is disagreement about how to categorise problems and few resources for a comprehensive tabulation.

Parental perceptions vary. One 2008 survey by Common Sense Media (CSM) and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center noted that 75% of surveyed US parents agreed that a facility with digital media was as "beneficial" to kids as reading and math (83% said it was critical to success) but 67% said they did not think the net taught kids how to communicate, 75% thought it did not teach kids how to be socially responsible and a 87% said it did not help them learn how to work with others.

Historical perspectives on literacy are offered here as part of discussion of reading, readership and the book. Questions of readability are examined here, along with pointers to works such as Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet (New York: Columbia Uni Press 1998) by Todd Taylor & Irene Ward, Popular culture, New Media & Digital Literacy (London: Routledge 2004) by Jackie Marsh and Information Literacy Cookbook: Ingredients, Recipes and Tips for Success (Oxford: Chandos 2007) edited by Jane Secker, Debbi Boden & Gwyneth Price.

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