Feelin’ Lucky?

There’s a button on the Google home page labeled “I’m Feeling Lucky.” Ever click it? Instead of giving a ranked list of the sites that best match your search terms, it bypasses that step and takes you directly to the first site. So—are you feeling lucky? Are you ready to roll the dice and see what comes up?

Sometimes we quickly get the information we need, but too often we must wade through inappropriate matches. Perhaps I want information on the metal lead but get matches for the verb lead, or perhaps the word foresight is confused with a dozen companies and organizations with that name.

One of the great strengths of the Internet is that anyone can publish. But one of the great weaknesses of the Internet is … anyone can publish. Writers’ delight in seeing their work in print is rarely shared by the reader. We information seekers must burrow through this information landfill of irrelevant chaff, misinformation, and porn to find what we need.

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The Challenge

Another way of looking at the Internet sees it as a convenient portal into a rapidly growing mountain of information. It’s been said, for example, that a big city newsstand contains more information than did the fabled Library of Alexandria. And the Internet contains the newsstand’s information, plus what it held yesterday and last week and last year, plus much more than just magazines and newspapers. This gives a glimpse into just how much the Internet holds.

But let’s explore this, since it holds a few lessons for evaluating the Internet.

That newsstand might also hold more information than the collected works of Shakespeare, but so what? To compare the Library of Alexandria to a newsstand’s worth of information is like comparing an intricate glass heirloom to its weight in sand.

The Library contained half a million priceless documents containing literature, science, and history from every civilization around the Mediterranean. Mere information or news is quite different from knowledge or wisdom.

Another problem is the comparison suggests that only now do we have access to this fire-hose of information. And yet the comparison could just as easily have been made over 150 years ago. Printing, which had changed little since Guttenberg’s day, was revolutionized in the early 1800s as first the steam press and then the rotary press increased print speeds by a factor of one hundred.

Newspapers had been expensive, but the new penny newspaper changed that. There was a paper for nearly every political, ethnic, or occupation category. Cheaper printing also gave more convenient access to books and to reference material such as encyclopedias—it wasn’t the Internet that first brought information to the masses.