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The Evolution of Information

When I was a youngster in the 1960s, my parents bought into the then-prevailing notion that it was essential to have encyclopedia in the house (literally, and at a significant sacrifice on their part). We ended up with a total of three sets, one of which was pretty comprehensive. By the time I was fifteen, I had read through all of the volumes, in some instances more than once. I have a good memory, and still recall some of the things I read in that era.

My next information revelation came in the early 1990s, with the introduction of encyclopedic information on CD media. I recall being particularly entranced by Microsoft Encarta, whose hyperlinks gave me the unique opportunity to view and parse information randomly, rather than sequentially. A new discovery awaited at the other side of every click.

I'm beginning to feel a similar sense of discovery today, with the Wikipedia as the source. Increasingly I find myself turning to that site for bits of information on a variety of topics, or even for pure enjoyment. I spent most of last Saturday jumping from one link to another in tracing a particular series of historical events across the Pacific Ocean, reading and learning as I went.

My wife, back in college retraining into another career field, has her doubts about Wikipedia. These doubts spring from the seeming lack of proven authentication, most in the form of academic citations. But you will even find some of those in Wikipedia entries, and tests conducted of content between Wikipedia and more established (and costly) encyclopedia has found similar rates of errors and omissions.

Wikipedia has certainly had growing pains. There have been inappropriate entries, both favorable and unfavorable, to people and events. The editorial process is a community effort, rather than a rigorously designed process, which makes many people uncomfortable about depending on it as an authoritative source.

But the entries I have viewed are dispassionately written, neutral in tone and position, and seemingly accurate. It still remains to be proven that a community-based editorial process can satisfy the demanding needs of an authoritative information source, but the trend is a positive one.

I have never owned an encyclopedia, making do with the various academic and public libraries at which I have had privileges over the years. And now I'm gradually getting to the point where I will likely be able to depend entirely on the Wikipedia and similar sources. I eagerly anticipate the next phase of the information revolution.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 10/07/2006 at 1:15 PM

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