I was going to begin this speech with something speakerly like… “As Thomas Jefferson wrote: Information is the Currency of Democracy”. This sounded like the perfect lead-in for a speech that would touch on Phi Theta Kappa’s Honor’s Study Project: The Democratization of Information, as well as the work this COD chapter has been doing here on campus.
As a librarian, though, I obviously had to check my sources. And like any good 21st century citizen, I immediately turned to Google. While any number of websites were willing to attribute the quotation to Jefferson, none seemed very clear on when he might have said it or in what context. Until I consulted the online Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia (yes, there is such a thing) and learned that Jeffersonian scholars have tried and tried but have not been able to conclusively attribute this excellent and appropriate-to-my-speech line to Jefferson. In fact, what they have found is that the likely source of the phrase is… Ralph Nader.
So, as the consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader once said… Information is the Currency of Democracy. Or in other words, our ability to access, to create and to share information is a fundamental part of our society– the medium of exchange on which democracy is based. And in a world where I can learn the true source of this phrase in less than a minute by simply typing a few words and clicking a few links, we must be rolling in the proverbial informative dough.
But, to paraphrase something Jefferson actually did say: unlike men (and women), all information is NOT created equal. And just like currency, some information has more purchasing power than other information.
For every shiny golden fact that keeps us informed about the world around us, there’s the old and tarnished item that doesn’t provide the whole story. With a world of information at our fingertips, we can all be cub reporters and investigate our interests as fully as we like. Teach yourself to knit using a blog, repair your car with a YouTube video, learn a new language by chatting over Skype with a native speaker.
We can also be detectives, following the digital clue trail that our daily online interactions leave behind. Meet someone at a party? Want to catch up with a long lost friend? It’s easier than ever to learn what people are doing and what people have done. But just as you’re searching for information on people, people are searching for information on you. Applying for a job? Your potential boss can Google your name and find news of your achievements alongside your most recent status update and pictures from last nights’ party. Almost every online activity leaves its trace– your searches, your clicks, your “Likes” and “Become a Fan ofs”. When you close your browser or shut down your computer, your digital footprints remain. And you have little control over how they are used or where they can be found.
Like a bad penny, information about us that appears online has a tendency to keep turning up.
As pieces of information– good, bad or incomplete–become easier to find, our ability to discover new and wonderful things increases, too. These are the stumble-upon treasures which enrich our lives unexpectedly—the Buffalo nickels and Mercury dimes of information. Think of internet memes or viral videos– the accidental piece of humor or insight or downright bizareness that’s been caught on film and reached millions. Or the blog or podcast from a small-town individual with a unique perspective; the website or forum created to fulfill a need or interest that wasn’t getting attention in traditional mainstream channels.
These moments, these ideas, these points for communication have always been out there–but now they extend pervasively into a society that wants both to feel connected to others in an increasingly disconnected society and also to watch hilarious YouTube videos of kittens falling off of a Roomba vacuum cleaner.
The ease with which information and ideas can be shared– uploaded, downloaded, forwarded, linked to and Digged– allows each and every one of us a platform, a virtual soapbox on which to stand and proclaim our dedication to political causes; our interest in issues that affect our daily lives; our particular love of Hostess cupcakes.
Information no longer comes from the top down, but from the bottom, the sides and the middle. There are fewer people in control of our information, making decisions about what we have access to and when we can can access it. The gatekeepers of information (those who traditionally determined which films would be made, which books would be published, which classes would be taught, which news would be news) no longer guard the information turnstile.
Wikipedia, the world’s largest, most used, online reference site, was created almost ten years ago specifically to be developed and maintained by amateurs. It is the digital definition of democracy– for the people and by the people. We control the content. It’s like being able to print our own money! Look around you– you may be sitting next to someone who has written or contributed to a Wikipedia article. You may be sitting next to someone who has vandalized a Wikipedia article.
The internet, and social media have opened wide those doors which were once so carefully guarded and absolutely anyone can come on in and do whatever they like.
Not all of this information is useful. Not all of this information is correct. There is an abundance of counterfeit information, shuffled in among the legitimate stuff. Rumors, conspiracy theories and wild accusations start, spread, and gain traction quickly in this open environment where information is created democratically.
Content creators lack authority or expertise; bias colors an author’s treatment of a subject; seemingly appropriate information is woefully out of date and therefore inaccurate.
When we hand over a 100 dollar bill in the store, the clerk checks it, proves its worth. Who is checking the information that we accept unthinkingly or pass along unwittingly?
An old adage reminds us “Not to take any wooden nickels”, to be cautious in our dealings, to read the fine print, to put the coin between our teeth and bite. Just so, as information is as easy to come by as pennies in a gutter, we must take the time to critically examine the sources of our information and the information itself. Additionally, we should be stewards of information, aware of how it is shared and how we share it ourselves.
We can spot the fake 5 dollar bill in the parking lot, the one-sided pawnshop flier that begs to be picked up for its resemblance to the real thing. But can we just as easily judge the information that lies around us, picking out what is valuable and leaving behind what is worthless?
The Phi Theta Kappa Honor’s Project explains that information, and our increased and ready access to so much of it, affects “how we study, shop, [and] socialize.” How we “we share our passions and [how we] develop ideas to address the world’s challenges.” Your project this year, exploring the role of social networking in academics, where lines of privacy should be drawn between students and their teachers, is an important part of the bigger picture– Information is global, accessible, created and shared and used and misused by each of us.
As Phi Theta Kappa members, you’ll have the opportunity not only to explore these ideas in your project, but also to think critically about the information you use as you go forward in your studies, in your careers, in the service you provide your communities, and in your personal lives.
Your accounts are full of information– spend it wisely.