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Magazines > Searcher > February 2006
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Vol. 14 No. 2 — Feb 2006
SEARCHER'S VOICE
Déjà Vu All Over Again
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastDon't you love Yogi Berra? My personal favorite was his greeting to the Holy Father on a visit to the Vatican: "Hello, Pope." How often the garbling of his Yogi-isms [http://www.umpirebob.com/DATA/yogiisms.htm] still let the truth shine through! And, how well the commonality of those truths was revealed by the ease and speed with which we all understood what he meant! How many of us recall backwaters where "it gets late early out there"? Or remember attending events where "it was hard to have a conversation with anyone, there were so many people talking"? Hats off to Yogi Berra, one of the great social observers of our time. Well, not exactly "our" time, but close enough. Some of my readers may frame their timelines more in Third Millennium terms than those of the last 5 percent of the Second Millennium.

Time does march on, doesn't it? How things do change. I was watching an old episode of 77 Sunset Strip, a television series popular in the early 1960s, on a cable channel the other day. A conversation was being recorded off a phone tap. The machine being used was just a bit smaller than a desktop computer tower. My last purchase of techno-gadgetry in 2005 was a digital voice recorder. It fits inside the palm of my hand and still leaves room for the handle of a coffee cup and a pen. It can also record for up to 8 hours in one mode. The heroine of Veronica Mars eagerly installs similar devices in office nooks and crannies whenever she wants to spy on her clients' enemies. Of course, she triggers the voice-activated feature to maximize undercover efficiency.

"O tempora! O mores!" as Cicero once said. How the times we live in — and the technologies we work with — affect our moral decisions as individuals and as a society. When it becomes easy to do something, as well as advantageous, the chances of self-restraint holding out for long — sad to say — sink slowly into the sea. And if society forbids taking advantages that technology dangles before us, if the instruments for enforcing society's taboos are ineffective, that slow sinking may turn into a crash dive. Although this will undoubtedly raise the hackles of friends and colleagues who battle for the cause of privacy, I have often thought that insisting on individuals revealing the authorship of any online content they provide could help increase personal responsibility and, hopefully, truthfulness.

Anonymity is always a red flag to information professionals. Who would trust a company Web site with no snail-mail address in its contact section or ("Flee! Flee!") a corporate Web site without any contact information at all? We all have heard the stories of professional journalists getting in trouble for using unnamed sources. Should naming a source be an absolute requirement? No. Whistle-blowers still need some protection. But users — and the editors and information professionals working on their behalf — should give substantial weight to sources willing to back their mouth at least to the point of revealing whose mouth is talking. In any case, no encyclopedia should accept unsigned articles as authoritative. That's one searcher's opinion, anyway. (Are you listening, Wikipedia?)

Speaking of changing times and changing technologies, for all the wonderful expansion of access to knowledge that the Internet and its Web have given us, for all the diversity of sources and the extension of coverage to every imaginable subject of interest, for all the benefits, there have also been some losses. For example, it struck me the other day that while the Internet and its Web have created an environment in which people from all different locales and backgrounds can form new and unusual social networks of colleagues and compatriots, it has lost us the ability to experience major events as a society simultaneously. Even the few recent nationwide defining moments, such as 9-11 and Katrina, left control of the amount and source of information presented to individuals in the control of each individual.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, practically every radio station in the country would have carried the news simultaneously. When John F. Ken­nedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963, practically every radio and television station had nothing but news coverage of the event right through to the funeral. That kind of universal, "one people, one nation" impact is almost impossible to imagine in an era of Internet access and cable television. If you don't watch news shows regularly, if you have switched from hours of TV to hours online, if none of your friends know enough about how far you've strayed from the herd to call you and tell you to turn to channel whatever, you could go hours — days — without knowing the world had changed forever. (I believe that is the terminology the anachronists who broadcast news use to describe news stories people may — or may not — remember in 5 years' time. Some of them seem to have learnt all their knowledge of history from TV docudramas.) It's odd to think that in this era of universal connectedness, it might be harder to inform a community of an impending disaster than it would have been 50 or more years ago.

Information professionals operate within a paradoxical dichotomy. While defending the rights of freedom of speech and press and expression (enough to get an FBI agent to refer to PATRIOT Act provisions as necessary in the struggle with those "radical, militant librarians") and committed ardently to the archiving of all information, information professionals still spend their days and budgets in censoring — scratch that, filtering? evaluating? selecting? — information sources. True to its paradoxical nature, the apparent contradiction has a good explanation. We want to make sure that no truth gets lost, even if it's only a partial truth or even an illustrative falsehood, and that no teller of truths or half-truths or even liars who mistakenly stumble on a truth get stifled. But, we also want to guarantee that our clients and the world get the best information available, information good enough to help them make sensible decisions and live better lives. So we work to make sure that all information is preserved, but that the best information gets featured availability status.

In this world of hundreds of cable channels and millions of Web sites, listservs, blogs, etc., individuals can "roll their own truth," but the truth doesn't always roll that way. The establishment is not always right, but it's not always wrong either. Traditional press may have its traditional faults, but it's also had to put practices in place to make sure those faults, visible to many, are corrected. Search engines weigh search results. Blogs are beginning to be rated. But it takes pressure and effort to make sure that the best information comes to the top. It takes information professionals committed to the task and in position to get those tasks done.

And the tasks need doing. After all, as Yogi used to say, "If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else."

bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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