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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Truth in a Digital Age

Discovery the old way: books
I have not made many bad book purchases in my life, but Encyclopedia Britannica for Children was a bad choice. It wasn't the books but the timing we messed up. We bought the series for our children at the dawn of the digital revolution. Perhaps that's why the deal was so good!

This wonderful set has rarely been used by our kids (and should we want to sell it would fetch very little today - I found a set on eBay for £30 - including free P&P - which means the seller was in effect giving the set away to a good home).

Encyclopedia Britannica, whether the children or adult version, was the old way of finding out facts authoritatively. Each article was written by an expert in the field. You could trust what you read. Schools were happy for you to quote it.

Books, that's where knowledge was stored. And since a publisher had his name to protect, the facts were checked and double checked.

Discovery the new way: Google and Wikipedia
But that is not how we do discovery today.  Today's generation go immediately to a search engine, most likely to Google, and type in their question, perhaps in a variety of ways, to narrow in on the desired answered. Often Wikipedia will figure on page 1, though not always.

Google answers about 1 billion of these questions every day. 

I wanted to know more about the knowledge gateway Google and the website it often ranks high, Wikipedia, so I read Tim Challies' book, "The Next Story", Life and faith after the digital explosion.

What I found has disturbed me....

Google is driven by a complicated mathematical formula. When you put in your string of words, it runs the string through this formula to determine the most relevant websites.

Money first
First of all, since Google is a business, if it can, it will make money out of your request and lead you to a website which will pay Google for being ranked high.

Popularity second
Second, and since many of the questions we ask do not have a financial connection, Google does a PageRank to determine how trustworthy the website is. A web site will be ranked, to put it simply, by how many other websites refer to it. The logic is that the more websites around the world that refer to this website the more reliable it must be.

This is where the first real concern about truth must lie. Popularity is no indication of truth - though of course, Google has no other way of determining truth.

Everywhere in Scripture, when it comes to spiritual truth, we are given numerous examples of the minority being in the truth, and the majority in error. Ten spies say the land cannot be conquered, two say it can. The two are in the right. Eight hundred and fifty prophets say that Baal is the true 'god', one man says that the God in heaven is the true God. The one man is right. The majority of Israel wander off into idolatry, the small remnant remain faithful. Most people wander down the wide road that leads to destruction, few find the road to life.

So if you have a question you will be led to websites on the first page that themselves have been pointed to by the largest number of other websites.

But you have no idea whether or not that website will give you reliable information, and you are relying on the popularity of the site to give you the answer. In life are the most popular people right? Are the most popular websites right?

Wikipedia third
Very often Wikipedia turns up on page one. For example, I just Googled "Does God exist". The fourth entry is Wikipedia's article. Google rank Wikipedia highly.

The Problem with Wikipedia
While Wikipedia provides many of us with immediate answers to a whole range of day to day practical questions, truth by Wikipedia is beset by one major problem: anyone can edit Wikipedia. On the one hand ordinary people can possess great knowledge, on the other hand, the reliability of that knowledge can be uneven.

From this simple survey, I came to three conclusions:

(1)  If we are looking for answers to factual questions, Google and Wikipedia will most probably lead us towards the right direction.

(2) If it is a moral or a spiritual question Google and Wikipedia are unreliable guides, because their answeres are shaped by popular consensus rather than truth.

(3) Teach your kids about their new 'parents'. It is amazing how ignorant this present parenting generation can be about the primary influences of many kids upon their lives. Today if a child has a personal problem they are not likely to ask mother or father but Google. Parents must not only teach their children how to use Google, but they must also make sure they do not delegate the task of parenting to Grandad Google.

Tim Challies' book is well worth reading, and unfolds many other challenges we are faced with in a digital age.

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