Are We Really Living in a Golden Age of Information?

Information professionals like to crow that we’re living in a Golden Age of Information. More information is available to more people than ever before in history, and it’s easier to access than ever.

The standard response is to point out that there’s more bad information than ever before. A whole lot of the information currently circulating around out there isn’t reliable.

This is true. But it’s also true that there’s more good information available to us than ever before, too. Just as bad information has increased, good information has increased alongside. I believe this firmly and I’ll stand by this statement.

But I’m not sure if the increase in good information is keeping pace with the increase in bad. It may be the proportion of good-to-bad has become more unbalanced. It may be that good information is being increasingly overwhelmed by the bad.

I also believe that good information is getting harder to find. Partly because there’s just so much more information out there to have to sort through in total—and especially if the proportion of good-to-bad is getting worse. But also because many of our formerly reliable sources of good information have turned bad. We used to be able to rely on the news for fairly objective and factually reliable information, but now most news channels have become too sensationalist and opinionated to trust. Newspapers and magazines have been gutted of substantive content and stuffed full of paid advertisements.

Many of these formerly good, but now unreliable, sources of information in our society have been replaced with new, non-traditional sources. There’s still plenty of good, reliable information to be had. But too many people don’t know about these new sources, don’t know how to find them, don’t even know to look for them.

The single biggest challenge facing us today is information literacy. We may have more and easier access to more information than ever before, but that doesn’t matter if we don’t know how search for it effectively and critically evaluate what we find. Information literacy is the key to the Information Age.

In this, we’re not doing so well.

Whatever the information environment may be, some degree of information literacy is required to be able to successfully navigate it. As information environments become larger and more complex, the minimum information literacy requirements increase. Our current information environment is vast, and vastly complicated, constantly and rapidly changing. The basic information literacy required to function in this environment is more demanding than ever before.

Information literacy in our society isn’t keeping pace with the expansion of our information environment. The gulf between our information environment and our information literacy is wider than ever. In my more cynical moments, I question whether it’s even possible for us to keep up, to close the gap. There’s just too much information, and the technology which governs access and use changes too frequently.

In contrast, consider the information environment of the 1950s: far more limited, with fewer sources in total, but a greater proportion of those sources considered reliable and accurate. Most people got most of their information from the same sources. In general, the information each person had available to them agreed with everyone else’s. Such an information environment was relatively easy to navigate—the information literacy required was minimal.

But that doesn’t mean the information environment of the ’50s was better than today. Because the information environment of the ’50s left too much out. Being more limited and more centralized made it too easy for too much to be excluded. It made it too easy for society to turn a blind eye, to ignore, to just not talk about certain things.

Such cultural and social exclusion is far less possible in our information environment today. Dissenting and minority voices aren’t so easily silenced or ignored now. I think this is better.

Which isn’t to say that we’re in an information utopia, as some would have us believe. We face tremendous challenges and drawbacks with our current information environment.

But it’s not a dystopia, either, it’s not all bad. There truly is more good information available to more people than ever before in our history. Despite the widening information literacy gulf we face, despite the overwhelming amount of bad information we have to muck through, our information environment today is far more representative of the full diversity of people and experiences in our society than ever before.

That’s a very good thing.

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