Ethics in the Information Age
We can define the Information Age as being a term used to describe our current time period, one in which there has been a shift from the previous industrial-based economies ushered in by the Industrial Revolution to the information-based economies ushered in by the widespread development of the internet and computers/computing/networking capabilities. In this economy, information has become both a resource and a commodity, and access to the internet and to information, or lack of access, can be a determining factor in both personal and business success.
In virtually every discussion or analysis of the impact of universal access, there are both positives and negatives that are considered. In simplistic terms, having access to the vast resources and information that are available via the internet affords anyone with an internet-capable device the same access to knowledge as anyone else with an internet-capable device. In other words, it can act as an agent to level the playing field in that regard. This would certainly seem to be a positive in the overall picture and analysis. On the other hand, because anyone with an internet-capable device can not only access resources and information but can also post resources and information, a drawback to universal access is that a considerable amount of what is accessible is of questionable value and of uncertain worth, and the sheer amount of it makes finding what is beneficial and useful a challenge. Developing a level of expertise on any given subject is made both easier and harder…the amount of information available to draw from is virtually unlimited and is almost instantly attainable, but it takes more time and effort to ferret out which among the all the available information options are true, correct, relevant and verifiable. Determining who posted the information, whether it is authentic, whether its veracity has been verified and whether or not the person or organization who posted the information is working from the bias of a particular viewpoint or agenda can make the process of selecting “good” information unquestionably difficult.
Businesses and institutions with the capital and computer/software infrastructure to control the release of information could easily utilize that ability to influence what their customers and citizenry know or are able to find out, opening the door for abuses of power or the setup of a technocratic society. Restrictive governments can control what their citizens are able to access and limit it to only what they wish their people to know. Businesses and institutions can likewise use their access to big data and infrastructure to identify customer bases, sway public opinion through targeted news access, and generally manipulate the infosphere in favor of their agenda or corporate bottom line.
The average person doesn’t have to look very far to see the evidence of some of this power and influence on a daily basis. Ads that pop up on your Facebook page or Google searches that relate to recent online searches or purchases are a direct result of a business or institution utilizing their access to big data to track your shopping and inquiry history and then target their advertisements to that history. While it may not necessarily be a “bad” thing to have ads targeted to your interests delivered to you, the fact that your browsing history is being tracked and compiled on servers and in networks out on the web could definitely be a problem if that information was somehow used against you down the road.
The good/bad debate applies equally to news and civic/societal information, both on a local and global level. Insofar as information is publically available and not being filtered by governmental or business entities or civic institutions, there is a plethora of information to wade through in the effort to be informed on any given topic. As mentioned above, anyone with an internet-capable device has the ability to tweet, blog, Instagram, facebook, etc, details of breaking-news events. This can serve to ensure that the truth of what is happening is made public, but these rapid-fire types of postings can also lack context and analysis that can inform the larger understanding of what is really happening and why. It takes time and a concerted effort to develop a broad understanding of a difficult topic..the sort of time and effort that can be lacking in the instantly-available, always-on, snapshot-sort of world that many online environments tend to be.
Daily newspapers and nightly news broadcasts used to be the resource of choice for people to obtain their comprehensive news and information. Over the last several decades, and maybe particularly the last two as the internet has become more and more widely available, newspaper readership has declined, ownership of existing news outlets have become consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, and nightly news broadcasts have become less about in-depth news coverage and more about maintaining viewership. So far, the model that will replace these institutions as the “resource of choice” for in-depth and accurate news reporting has not clearly emerged, other than use of online resources in general, despite some of the dubious aspects of their validity.
How to address the maintenance and ongoing development of an informed citizenry in this new information-driven world is a challenge that is yet to be well-addressed, and there may not be one single solution that everyone can point to as the end-goal to aim for to meet it. The generation of people who grew up with print, who believed in the value of reading the daily newspaper and watching the nightly news as provided to them by one of the major television networks are aging. The generation replacing them as the leaders and teachers of the day have grown up in quite a different world, information-speaking. They are accustomed to having access to whatever they want to know and having it right now. They are less accustomed to taking the time to read in-depth articles with broad coverage of complex issues, and even less willing to pay for that information, further exacerbating the financial difficulty of news organizations to maintain the staff they need over the long-term to develop journalists with expertise in regions and topics around the world.
How all of these competing factors will work to shape the thinking of individuals, electorates, communities and societies around the world can be a bit frightening to contemplate. Will access to potentially shallow but abundant information be the equal to access to potentially deep but limited information?
I remain hopeful. It seems as though the frenetic level of enthusiasm that initially characterized all things online as access to the internet expanded to the current global level may be starting to settle down. As access becomes more common-place, more a part of our daily experience and less “Wow! This is so cool!”, we are starting to have conversations about some of the issues surrounding universal access, filtering, information-producing models, etc., that have a degree of experience that wouldn’t have been possible for us even 10 years ago. I believe that sometimes you need to live with something for a while before you are in a position to make good decisions about it, and I’m hopeful that information–who has it, who has access to it, and who controls it–will be positively impacted by the fact that we’ve now all had some time to “live with it” and figure some of these things out in ways that are beneficial to everyone.
The comment made in the documentary Barbershop Punk that alluded to the fact that the “right to know”, the right to the information available through an internet connection, has become a basic human right, would seem to support that hope (Armfield, et. al., 2013)
Armfield, K., Kulash, D., Garofalo, J., Rollins, H., Topolski, R., Archer, G. S., Monkü Power Incorporated., … Passion River Films. (2013). Barbershop punk. Metuchen, NJ: Passion River Films.
“Information age”. Retrieved June 12, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Information Age
Leake, E. (2012) “The Open Gates of the Fourth Estate” from Composition Forum 25 (Spring 2012) Online at: http://compositionforum.com/issue/25/civic-literacy-citizen-journalism.php
Nichols, J. & McChesney, R. (2009, March 18). The death and life of great American newspapers: The collapse of journalism threatens democracy itself–that’s why we need a government rescue. The Nation.