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Johannes Gutenberg didn't have a clue. When he set the last lines of type for his 1454 printing of the Bible, he couldn't have known about everything that would come later--AA Milne and Pablo Neruda, the Communist Manifesto and Danielle Steele. The values, needs, and dissentions of hundreds of cultures, distilled into a few handfuls of type and a sprinkling of punctuation marks.
Gutenberg was the first to liberate information. He made owning collections of information affordable. He brought movable type to the Western world and at the same time created a revolution of the mind throughout all Europe, widening horizons and initiating literacy among the non-aristocratic public.
His invention also created the need for writers--people to feed the pipeline that he made, people to package information into the format that he publicized. Unfortunately, writing became, and remains to some, an "elite" activity that requires inbred talent or a bolt of divine lightning. It takes several steps to get a book published, and sometimes a large sum of money. Gutenberg created an inexpensive method of compiling information, but not for creating or distributing it.
Now we have the Internet. It is a pipeline much like Gutenberg's, only on a much more massive scale. With the creation of the WWW, the Internet has gained the easy-to-use interface it needs to become widely-used by all kinds of people at all education levels. The critical difference is that it's as easy to create content as it is to access content.
In a way, the Internet is reverse-Gutenberg. Instead ofmovable type, we have "type movable"; one copy of a newsletter, book, or magazine can be circulated literally millions of times. Better yet, it can be archived for later retrieval..
What does it mean, when everyone can create sets of information that can be reproduced an infinite number of times all over the world? First of all, it means that the amount of information available to everyone is going to increase by a scale unimaginable. And what happens when the supply of a commodity increases? Right; the value of the commodity drops. And so it is with writing.
.... sort of. Writing is a subjective commodity, the value of which varies widely from person to person. Still, there will be a measurable increase in the amount of information available, and it will be such a large increase that it will be impossible to avoid an increase in the amount of valuable information available to any one person (unless one has absolutely no interest in anything).
In the face of this tide of information, the current generation and surviving generations before it find themselves ill-equipped to make sense of it. They have the wrong skill.
Our educational system prides itself on teaching children to write, to express themselves articulately in print. This is admirable, and quite understandable when the commodity of written information was forced to go through a very expensive and narrow pipeline; many, many students are taught to write, and relatively few grow up to feed the pipeline and bring the commodity of printed material to those who enjoy reading. Now the pipeline is huge. Almost anyone can put his or her materials on the Internet to be read. Writing enables one to add to the flow of information, but not to harness the stream of materials constantly moving on the Internet.
Now is the time to deliberately advance the evolution of a skill that is usually only taught in higher-level courses, a skill that will enable future students to evaluate the materials circulating in the pipeline and make the most out of what they see. In its simplest form, the skill is called reading.
Theoretically we are all taught to read in elementary school. We sound out words, get together in groups and follow the adventures of Dick and Jane, and gradually move up to Hemingway and Parker. However, the reading taught at this level is merely the interpretation of symbols. It is STOP and GO and THE CAT SAT ON THE MAT, but it is not understanding the material, it is not any kind of criticism, it is not a knowledge of how different pieces of writing go together.
The understanding of how different things link together is the linchpin of the new reading skill. Fragments of information will be available everywhere. It will be up to the reader to catalogue this information, evaluate it for relevance, and, most important of all, connect it to other fragments of information in order to create new information that has a very high subjective value to him or her (and hopefully some concrete usefulness.)
I am not calling for the abolition of writing courses. What I am calling for is the understanding that writing should now be the secondary skill. It used to be that reading was the secondary skill; one learned to read in grade school and from then on through college. The emphasis was on writing; perfecting spelling and grammar skills, learning proper form, etc.
I feel that a more proper education would be reading in grade school, a couple of years of writing in order to learn to communicate clearly, and then nothing but reading. Reading for thorough comprehension, not just to spit back a temporary understanding. Reading to remember later and link to a new piece of information. Reading to understand and empathize with a different culture, a different experience, a different need, a different perspective (all things readily available on the worldwide Internet).
In short, reading as an experience of depth, designed to change one subtly with every paragraph, every new word, every discovered fact. Readers will be needed at all levels of the Internet to comb through information and organize it before passing it on to the next level of readers, until it finally gets to the "general public"; those who have specific and narrow needs and rely on the readers to correctly evaluate and filter information before delivering it to them. They are the "end-users", they only want the gold. They are not the readers who pan the information stream, who find the gold but also find dirt, diamonds, and dynamite.
The pipeline of words has been unleashed; the rare commodity now is time. It is only through a new set of skills and understanding that humans will be able to harness and tame the tide that we add to minute by minute.
Ten Friendly Tips for Internet Research
While in the earlier chapters we've given you a good start on the kinds of hardware and software you need, we have not yet given you a set of guidelines that will serve you over and above specific instructions on this or that technique.
Thus, this chapter was created. These rules are ones that apply to all of the Internet research you'll want to do, and you should keep them in mind at all times. Originally we were going to call this chapter "The 10 Commandments of Internet Research," but it seemed arrogant on our part. So instead, here are 10 Friendly Tips for Internet Research.
I. Search Wisely
You've heard the old adage, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?" Well, too much knowledge may flatten you. There is so much information on the Web these days that it's hard to compile (no two Web search sites contain the same information) and hard to track (no large-scale search engine is without a few outdated or "problem" links).
Don't Get Too General
A sure path to madness is to search for the word "tree" using an Internet search engine. If you want to do a report on trees, make your search phrase as specific as you can and then work your way outward, getting more and more general. For example, say you needed to do a paper on objectivism for your American Philosophy class. You decide tofocus on Gwen Ives, a minor character in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. Gwen Ives is a very specific character, and searching for her name might be difficult. Developing a very specific to very general list for Gwen Ives might look like this:
Gwen Ives is probably too narrow a search topic and American Philosophy is too broad. Your best research bets will be in the middle of the spectrum: Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged.
Use the Appropriate Index
If you're researching a reasonably common topic with a reasonably common theme, use a general index (a site that divides pages up into categories, like Yahoo!) before you use a general search engine (a site that indexes every word of every page it catalogs, like Alta Vista). If there's one available, use a topic-specific index before you use a general one. For example, if you're researching vitamins, you'd want to use a health index like Achoo
before you used the general index Yahoo! If Achoo doesn't have what you need, then you'd want to use Yahoo before you used a general search engine like Alta Vista
II. Keep Time on Your Side
Due to its reluctance to be governed extensively by a central body, the Web has no way of automatically adding a site to the many general subject catalogs and indexes available. There is no single "librarian" making sure that all online resources are available from one "card catalog" (a primary reason that trying to approach the Internet as a library can lead to frustration). While Web-crawling spiders make the assimilation and indexing of Web sites easier, it is up to humans to initiate and perform this process and the many other tasks of public relations and publicity that will get their site into the public eye.
Unfortunately, too many site creators love the creation and design process but have a marked distaste for publicizing the fruit of their efforts. This means too many good resources are relegated to dark corners and can result in complicated hunts for the unfortunate seeker of knowledge. (Yes, we said seeker of knowledge. And here you thought you were just trying to finish your comparative economics paper on time.)
When researching a breaking event or an ongoing topic, bear in mind that search engines sometimes take a while to add things to their databases. Depending on the search engine, the process of adding something may take from a couple of hours to a few weeks. For recent developments, check newsgroup and mailing list archives first.
III. Use Every Scrap of Information
Did you ever do logic puzzles in math class? They were puzzles in which you were given a group of people and a group of things or activities. By using a limited set of clues, you connect the proper person to the proper thing or activity.
Internet research is much the same way. Every scrap of information is necessary to find what you're looking for. Many times you'll pick up scraps along the way. Don't disregard any scrap of knowledge, no matter how minor. Keep the different scraps of information in mind and be prepared to use them.
IV. Attack Your Research Problem From Many Different Angles
Finding a good angle is as important as getting specific. For a more sporting example, let's consider basketball. Say you're doing a newspaper story on the WNBA vs. the NBA. You decide to focus on California, covering the Los Angeles Sparks and the Los Angeles Lakers. You could do a simple search for Lisa Leslie or Shaquille O'Neal, but you're going to get a lot of game recaps and news stories you're not looking for.
One way to go about finding the information you do need is to think about the different aspects of what you're researching. If you want to compare scoring among the different players in the two leagues, you might want to search for both Shaquille O'Neal and Lisa Leslie. Maybe you want to focus on one of the team coaches or spokespersons. Maybe you want to look for files that have both WNBA and NBA in them. Or maybe you want to pull completely back from the LA teams and focus on popular players from other areas of the league, like Rebecca Lobo or Michael Jordan.
A lot of your potential success in searching the Internet depends on your flexibility -- how you phrase your questions and look for clues. This is not your high school algebra exam; there is no flat right or wrong answer, just the answer you find.
V. Don't Be Afraid to Guess
You can go far on the Net by taking an educated guess or two. You can guess at the addresses where you might logically expect to find information. Conversely, you can guess at the many unexpected ways the topic that you're searching for may have been misspelled, turning up gems that would otherwise escape you.
Play the Name Game
When searching for a particular name, do not assume that everyone knows how to spell it. If you are looking for someone named Ridout, search under Rideout and Rideowt as well. If you're looking for references to Louisa May Alcott, try Allcot and Alcot. And of course, first names are even more diverse--someone you know as Andrew might go by Andy or Drew online.
This misspelling rule applies to common English words as well. There is no law that says that people have to run their materials through a spell checker before they put them online, so a lot of lesser-known words are misspelled. Recently, someone wanted to find references to the word "usufruct." A search for that word found some references, but not quite what he was looking for. However, a search for "usafruct," a misspelling of the same word, found a great reference. Many search engines support wild cards, which allow you to replace a letter or many letters in a word with a wild card, allowing an Internet search to match on any letter. For example, if the wild card character is a *, then a wild card search for c*t would find cat, cut, cot, and so forth.
Experiment With Addresses
If you're looking for a site on the Web, try typing in http://www.<companyname>.com, for example, www.microsoft.com. This usually works if you're trying to find a company name -- Philips, Budweiser, Sony, and so on. If you're trying to find a nonprofit organization, try www.<companyname>.org, and if you're trying to find a college, try www.<college>.edu.
VI. Resist the Temptation to Get Distracted
There's so much stuff out there that you'll often find yourself going, "Hey, that resource looks kind of interesting. I think I'll check that site for a minute." The next thing you know, it's three hours later and you haven't done any of the research you originally intended to do.
Information presented in a hypertext format gives you a raft of possibilities for going off on a fun, exciting, and extensive--but ultimately time-wasting and counterproductive--cyber-escapade. The next time you're traveling across the rocky Internet, try these tips:
VII. Mark Your Trail
You don't have to have a sheaf of Alice's Restaurant-style "8x10 glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back explaining each one," but it's good to mark your trail so you can remember where you went and learn from how you got there.
Bookmarks are a bad way to keep your trail. Since it's easy to add a bookmark every time you're looking for something, a small bookmark file can quickly evolve into a huge unusable mess. If you have only used a resource once to solve a problem and don't plan on using it again, don't put it in your bookmark file. A better thing to do is to write yourself a note, or even a brief e-mail, explaining each unique research problem and how you solved it. Then print it out and keep it. The next time you need to research a problem, you'll have a summary of a problem that you solved before. If the same resource pops up again and again in your problem-solving files, put it in your bookmarks.
For example, we read online newspapers a lot. Invariably we find ourselves going to the terrific online newspaper index Newslink. Since we use it often--at least five or six times a week--it sits up at the top of our bookmark list.
VIII. Ask for Help
Bad press notwithstanding, most people on the Internet are friendly and helpful. If you take the time to learn how to ask a question properly, many people will share whatever information they have with you.
The operative part of the above paragraph is the phrase "learn how to ask a question properly." Newsgroups and mailing lists--the primary means of group interaction on the Internet--have standards of culture and communication that vary considerably from place to place. One mailing list may have strict rules about staying on the topic. Another may tolerate straying from the topic, but strictly forbid profanity. A newsgroup may also be
moderated, meaning that your posts will have to be approved by someone before the rest of the newsgroups see them.
By taking some time to learn the standards of each group with which you wish to communicate, you'll make the most of your posts and e-mails.
Keep the spirit of Internet kindness alive by sharing what you know when you're asked a question.
Sometimes it will be very tempting to flame (insult or harass) someone because they've just asked a question that you've heard a million times before, or they've just asked a question that you consider the stupidest thing that you've ever heard. Just count to 10 and forget it.
By taking the time to kindly answer a question that was politely asked, you're doing your bit to keep Internet culture friendly and nice. Heaven knows, all of us can use all of the friendly and nice we can get.
X. Use the Information Responsibly
The power of the Internet and the amount of data it has available make it possible to abuse privacy in ways previously unimaginable. You've probably experienced this already with spam--people finding your e-mail address from an online resource and sending you unsolicited advertisements. It's a fairly benign invasion of privacy, but it's still annoying.
Information alone is a powerful tool. By comparison, in terms of sheer power, the Internet is one bad nuclear-powered titanium chainsaw. A tool that powerful can do tremendous amounts of good or bad. The responsibility for proper care of it is up to you. Treat the information you get with respect, and don't use it inappropriately.