As with regular television, the internet has its share of PBSes and Geraldos. To be a good consumer of television you must be a critical viewer of both the source and the content. Unfortunately, the history of good television consumers is sadly limited. The chance of developing the good skills will be nearly impossible in the hysteria of the internet. This means, as educators, parents, or regular consumers, we must start a process now that asks the questions that need to be asked of information providers.
The need to consider the source of all information on the internet is vital. Established sources such as universities, libraries, and government agencies can be considered reasonably reliable. After that, media sources such as CNN, reuters, and major broadcasters can be considered as reliable as you local paper. Then comes the free-for-all. The major problem is that individuals can write personal opinions or views but because they are part of a big organisation it may be tough to distinguish the organisational information from the individual opinion. It is normally the policy in most large institutions for people, university professors, employees of government, to state clearly that ‘this is a personal opinion and should not be considered the position of …” The people on the fringes, university and high school students or some kid using his parents account, are tougher to distinguish and are less likely to be explicit about their position.
The result is that information on the internet can not be considered wholly reliable. This runs against most peoples tendency to accept electronic reporting, news, TV, radio, as a reasonable facsimile of the truth.
Another major problem is it is almost impossible to distinguish the motivation and the character of those providing the information. This is furthur compounded by our tendency to what to believe first hand information. If we hear a voice or see a picture from Bosnia we accept it as an accurate report going on. On the internet your could be getting direct information from Bosnia or any other hot spot on a real time basis. It is possible that the person may not be in Bosnia at all. Even if they were, are they serb, moslem,or croat? What is their motivation? Are they part of a government propaganda machine? The questions are endless and almost impossible to answer. The internet also has a facility for anonymity. This makes an information judgment almost impossible.
These detrimental factors do not overshadow the shear power of the media. The largest example is in “access to information”. Many governments now have laws that require it to make documents freely available. The internet provides governments with a cheap are reasonably reliable delivery source. This will certainly be cheaper than providing paper copies to anyone that requests it. Unfortunately, this will exclude those with out the ability or means to access this form of information.
Recently (Spring ‘95), with little fanfare, the largest part of the internet were handed over to commercial interests. The internet, which was originally a education and research network for academics and government, had been created in the US by the National Science Foundation after taking over the basics from the Department of Defence. This was an attempt by the government to divest itself of the physical management of the wires that make the internet possible. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this, and many taxpayers would claim several things right, it does mark a fundamental shift in the internet as a structure. Not long ago, there were rules forbidding “for profit” activity on the internet. Now, a significant minority if not a majority of the traffic is commercial in nature. This should change our view of the internet. It is not a public utility or even a commercial utility. There are no rules about what can or can not go on the internet. A legal standards are almost impossible to enforce on a global link such as this.
As a user you need to ask; why is this information here? what is the motivation of those that are providing it? and what are the implications of using it. The best analogy is; how would you feel about television if any of your neighbours could put up a transmitter and broadcast whatever they want.
Bill Kempthorne (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Math/Physics teacher at Mountain Secondary in Langley, B.C. He has a soon to be published thesis on Computers in the Grade Eight to Ten classroom and a semi-regular contributor to user group newsletters and similar publications. Electronic rebutals are accepted in the manner offered at the above address.
The view expressed here should be treated as the sole opinion of the writer except were specific quotations or references are cited. Permission to reproduce for individual educational use is granted, all other rights reserved WAK&CO ©1995