The News, Distraction, and Information Overload

In his foreword to Andrew Lih’s The Wikipedia Revolution, Jimmy Wales compares Wikipedia to the New York Times, the LA Times, and other traditional print news sources (in terms of reach and readership). Wikipedia is not a news source but a knowledge repository. However, it has been known to function as a source of up to date information, particularly when it has to do with famous people (Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson, and Sarah Palin in particular).

On the other hand, Wikipedia is quite often used as a source by journalists as a quick reference. A lot of people still believe that there’s no harm in that. Then again, a lot of people have their heads in the sand. You know, you have to take a step back and wonder what you’d do without Wikipedia. What would you do if you needed to find something out on the Internet without powerful search engines and knowledge repositories? Without Wikipedia, it’s is even harder to differentiate between credible and unverifiable information.

I’d like you to try an experiment with me. The next time you go to look something up on the Web, don’t use Google and don’t use Wikipedia. How long does it take you to find what you’re looking for?

I try not to watch the news on television. It plays to me like a series of bad movie trailers. Over Thanksgiving week, the top of the box office was security pat downs at US airports. Interviewees bemoaned the end of personal, bodily privacy, as if this was all a new thing. A few days later, the News turned its eyes on a different, new topic, WikiLeaks, and the watching public were distracted once more.

“The speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalization is the speed of light.” -Virilio

I keep wondering about this notion of distraction. Are we distracted because the world is moving too fast for us to keep up, because we are trying to multitask too hard, or because there is simply too much information out there for which we must keep track. A simple solution to this whole problem, for me, would be obliviousness, but all too often this dilemma leads to ambivalence.

“As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.” –Diderot, Encyclopédie

When ever I get distracted, my mind wonders to Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life, when Eric Idle presents the final report. What keeps people from finding the meaning of life is that they get distracted. On a side note, people need to wear more hats.

Last week the big news about Wikipedia was its fundraising campaign: lots of people complaining about Wales’ ubiquitous visage getting in their way while Googling. The campaign has gotten a facelift, in my opinion no less distracting and disquieting than the original. That being said, the news about the campaign has been plugged in lieu of the WikiLeaks controversy. Now people are talking about Wikipedia in terms of WikiLeaks, and they’re still pretty confused over the correlation. What correlation? Wiki is a technology, not a lineage.

The “Wiki” stands for the technology on which each site is based. What’s more, WikiLeaks removed the wiki from its site. It used to look quite like Wikipedia (it’s just a design template). The site retains the name due to recognition and branding, but also retains the familiarity with Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s Signpost has been at work this year fighting the confusion.

I beg the question, would things have turned out differently if WikiLeaks had stuck with the MediaWiki technology? Is it a control issue, or does it just make it easier for law enforcement to point fingers at the WikiLeaks leadership?