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The Internet & the Future of Organized Knowledge: III of III

[Note: we thank Professor Floridi for kind permission to reprint this material, which is a shortened version of a paper he gave at a UNESCO Conference in Paris, March 14-17, 1995.]

Part Three: The Problems

In the previous two parts of this article, I argued for an understanding of the Internet as a new stage in the growth of the Human Encyclopedia, and showed how it allows us to do new kinds of research by asking third-level (ideometric) questions about our data. Here, we turn to new problems that the growth of a network of information and communication has already caused or soon will give rise to.

There are at least ten principal issues worthy of attention. I shall deal with them in what I take to be their approximate order of importance.

(1) The Devaluation of The Book -- We have already entered the stage where digital information is preferred over non-digital, not because of its quality, but simply because it is available online. However, the more resources that undergo the conversion, the less serious this problem will become.

(2) The Devaluation of Information Processes -- The Internet helps to satisfy an ever-growing demand for information. In this process, the use value of information has increased steadily, in parallel with the complexity of the system, but its exchange value has been subject to a radical modification. Because of the great and rapid availability of data, Internet has caused a devaluation of some intellectual enterprises - such as compilations, collections of images, bibliographical volumes and so forth - whose original high value depended mainly on the correspondingly high degree of inaccessibility that afflicted information in the book era.

Today, much of the raw data that in the past had to be collected at great expense of time and energy are freely available on the Internet. The result is that the era of the great collections on paper is practically over.

(3) Failure to Acknowledge New Scholarly Enterprise -- So far, Academe has been slow in recognizing that new forms of scholarly activity have appeared, like moderating a discussion list, keeping an online bibliography constantly updated, or publishing a paper in an electronic journal. The sooner such activities are properly recognized and evaluated, the easier it will become for individuals to dedicate more time and effort to the digital encyclopedia, and the more the encyclopedia will improve.

(4) Too Much Knowledge to Access -- A fundamental imbalance - between the extraordinary breadth of the system and the limited amount of knowledge that can be accessed by an individual mind at any one time - arises because the quantity of information potentially available on Internet has increased beyond control, whereas the technology whereby the network actually allows us to retrieve our data has improved much more slowly. The result is that we are once again far from being capable of taking full advantage of the full extent of our digital encyclopedia.

The challenge of the next few years will consist in narrowing the gap between quantity of information and speed of access, even as the former increases. Projects like the American Information Superhighway, or SuperJANET in Great Britain, are of the highest importance in this regard. However, we should keep in mind that closing the gap completely is impossible because of the very nature of the Encyclopedia.

(5) Too Much Accessible Knowledge to Manage -- This is the problem of "infoglut," as BYTE has called it. Throughout past history there was always a shortage of data, which led to a voracious attitude towards information. Today, we face the opposite risk of being overwhelmed by an unrestrained, and sometimes superfluous, profusion of data. No longer is "the more the better." If knowledge is food for then mind, then for the individual mind to survive in an intellectual environment where exposure to the Human Encyclopedia is greater than ever before, for the first time in the history of thought we desperately need to learn how to balance our diet.

Without a new culture of selection - and tools that can help us filter, select, and refine what we are looking for - the Internet will become a labyrinth which researchers will either refrain from entering or in which they will lose themselves. One can only hope that the care exercised today during the conversion of organized knowledge into a digital macrocosm will soon be paralleled by equally close attention to the development of efficient and economical ways to select and retrieve the information we need. In data-retrieval, brute force does not work any longer: we need intelligence. The Internet needs to be improved by the inclusion of expert systems.

(6) The Threat to Paper -- Some libraries are destroying their card catalogues after having replaced them with OPACs (online public access catalogs). This is as unacceptable as would have been the practice of destroying medieval manuscripts after an editio princeps was printed during the Renaissance. We need to preserve the sources of information after the digitalization in order to keep our memory alive. The development of a digital encyclopedia should not represent a parricide.

(7) Some Knowledge Exists Only Digitally -- Because for large sectors of the new encyclopedia there will be no paper epiphany, access to the network will have to be universally granted in order to avoid the rise of a new technological elite.

(8) The New Illiteracy -- Information Technology is the new language of organized knowledge. Therefore elements of that language must become part of the minimal literacy of any human being, if free access to information is to remain a universal right.

(9) The Internet as Rubbish Heap -- Because the Internet is a free space where anybody can post anything, organized knowledge could easily get corrupted, lost in a sea of junk data. In the book age, the relation between writer and reader was and is still clear and mediated by cultural and economic filters - e.g., you won't get published if what you say isn't somehow "true." For all their faults, such filters do provide some positive selection. On the Internet, the relation between producer and consumer of information is direct, so nothing protects the latter from corrupt information.

Now, there is much to be said in favor of the free exchange of information on the network, and I believe that any producer of data should be free to make it available online. But I think every user should also be protected from corrupt knowledge by an intermediary service, if she wishes. Unless academic and cultural institutions provide some form of quality control, we may no longer be able to distinguish between the intellectual space of knowledge and a polluted environment of junk.

(10) Decentralization Means Fragmentation -- By converting the encyclopedia into an electronic space, we risk transforming the new body of knowledge into a disjointed monster, rather than an efficient and flexible system. The Internet has developed in a chaotic (if dynamic) way, and today suffers from a regrettable lack of global organization, uniformity, and strategic planning. While we entrust ever more vast regions of the Human Encyclopedia to the global network, we are also leaving the Internet itself in a thoroughly anarchic state. Efforts at coordination are left to occasional initiatives by commendable individuals, or to important volunteer organizations, but this is insufficient to guarantee that in a few decades organized knowledge will not be lost in a labyrinth of millions of virtual repositories, while energies and funds have been wasted in overlapping projects.

The Internet has been described as a library where at the moment there is no catalogue, books on the shelves keep moving, and an extra truckload of books is dumped in the entrance hall every hour. Unless it is properly structured and constantly monitored, the positive feature of radical decentralization of knowledge will degenerate into a medieval fragmentation of the body of knowledge, which in turn means a virtual loss of information. Already it is no longer possible to rely on the speed of our networked tools to browse the whole space of knowledge and collect our information in a reasonably short time. If global plans are disregarded or postponed and financial commitments delayed, the risk is that information may well become no easier to find on the network than the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Some people have compared the invention of the computer to the invention of printing. To some extent the comparison is misleading: the appearance of the printed book belongs to the process of consolidation and enlargement of our intellectual space, whereas the revolutionary character of Information Technology has rested on making possible a new way of navigating through such a space. But in one important sense they are similar: in the same way as the invention of printing led to the constitution of national copyright libraries to coordinate and organize the production of knowledge in each country, so Internet needs a coordinated info-structure.

The Info-Structure -- The info-structure would consist of centers making coordinated efforts to fulfill the following five tasks:

  • guarantee the reliability and integrity of the digital encyclopedia;

  • provide constant access to it without discrimination, thus granting a universal right to information;

  • deliver a continually updated map to the digital universe of thought;

  • expand the numbers of primary, secondary, and derivative resources available online, especially those that won't attract commercial operators;

  • support and improve the methods and tools whereby the Encyclopedia is converted into a digital domain, and whereby networked information is stored, accessed, retrieved, and manipulated.

I'm not advocating the creation of some international bureau for the management of the Internet, a sort of digital Big Brother. Nor have I any wish to see national organisms take control of our new electronic frontier. Such projects, besides being impossible to realize, would be contrary to fundamental rights of freedom of communication, of thought, and of information. Far from it, I believe in the complete liberty and refreshing anarchy of the network.

What I'm suggesting is that Internet is like a new country, with a growing population of millions of well-educated citizens, and that as such it does not need a highway patrol. However, it will have to provide itself with a kind of Virtual National Library system (which could be as dynamic as the world of information) if it wants to keep track of its own cultural achievements in real time, and hence be able to advance into the third millennium in full control of its own potential. It is to be hoped that non-national institutions (such as UNESCO) may soon be willing to promote and coordinate such a global service, which is essential in order to make possible an efficient management of human knowledge on a global scale.


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