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The Information Age

In many ways, the third revolution really sprang from the deregulation of the phone companies. It is the Internet. Prior to the advent of the Internet, the regulation and distribution of information constituted a center of influence closely guarded by a tight group of elite power brokers. One of these groups included national television and radio media. This industry was dominated by three companies: ABC, NBC, and CBS. Another related group included the national print media which was controlled by a relatively small group of companies that owned and operated newspapers across the nation.

Technical information was mostly limited to what you could purchase in a printed text book or an encyclopedia set. These were typically expensive and comparatively difficult to come by. While some families might have access to an encyclopedia in the home, many others did not. Most public perceptions were controlled by what made it into national television, radio and print media.

Once the private market gained access to the telephone network, the population began to spontaneously form an interconnected data network. First it was FAX machines and then it spread to computers. Individuals, businesses, government agencies and schools began to use modems to connect their computers to other computers and the embryo of the Internet was born. Without the need for legislation, consortia of programmers began to voluntarily collaborate on methods for transferring data between computer networks. Communication protocols were cooperatively developed including those we still use today such as TCP/IP for network packet transmission, SMTP for email and DNS for interpreting domain names.

People stopped depending so much on the traditional mail system for transmission of written communication and began instead, to transmit written message to each other over the Internet in the form of electronic mail, or email. Before long, the new standards HTML and HTTP were introduced and the World Wide Web was born. Organizations all over the world gradually began to populate web pages with everything from scholarly articles to recipes. Soon businesses began to market and sell their products on Internet web sites and the way we buy and sell goods and services changed forever.

Today we think nothing of a software engineer in Germany working together on a business endeavor with a database programmer in New Delhi. If we want to buy a new appliance or some clothing, we can just as easily shop in Los Angeles as in Chicago without traveling to either city. Only a few decades ago, this was unimaginable.

Perhaps the biggest disruption caused by the Internet has been the threat to big government and the big media businesses who had previously grown accustomed to controlling the flow of news and information to the public. That control of information had long been used to manage public perceptions and thereby direct the flow of money and power throughout the political system.

Perhaps one of the most famous clashes between the old media and the new occurred in 2004 when the CBS news anchor, Dan Rather ran a story critical of then President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, dating back to 1972. Without getting into a discussion of the merits of the story itself, let us recall what happened. In support of the story, CBS presented a number of documents reported to be memos authored decades earlier by Bush’s then military commander. Within hours of the documents being made public, regular viewers began to question their authenticity on various Internet forums and blogs. Those scrutinizing the publicly viewable documents included individuals who were expertly familiar with various type-fonts and the time periods in which they had been in use. It was quickly determined, the documents were not likely to have been authored during the time period when Bush was in the military and so were most likely forgeries.

Regardless of whether you are more politically aligned with George Bush or Dan Rather, you must admit that, had this kind of story been published prior to the existence of the Internet, it would have been virtually impossible to refute. First, the likelihood of the documents coming into the hands of experts qualified to determine their authenticity would be extremely rare and would only have occurred if CBS had chosen to make it happen. But just as importantly, even if someone had been able to determine the documents were fraudulent, how would they be able to spread the word widely throughout the country or the world when all they had to rely on was the established television media to distribute their message? While there are many examples to be found of established media sources “getting it wrong,” this one is particularly interesting in light of the way the Internet was used to expose it.

Today, the original big three television networks still exist. But they now control only a small fraction of the information being disseminated to the public. In their place, many new options have emerged. News alternatives such as CNN and Fox News have each had their respective runs of popularity.

Today Google wields inestimable power due to its ability to control the order in which results are returned to people searching the Internet on various topics. However, there are competing search engines available, so as long as competitive forces are allowed to function freely, that virtual monopoly won’t last forever. Furthermore, there are innumerable blogs and amateur news outlets moving information at the speed of light around the planet. One notable example is the Drudge Report, founded by Matt Drudge and originally operated out of his one-room apartment. It is now one of the most viewed political news sites in the country.

Wikipedia is the de-facto encyclopedia of choice today. But rather than its content being controlled by a single publication company, it is accessible to anyone who takes the time to log in and write on a given topic. Establishment media advocates sometimes argue that while the volume of information has increased, its accuracy has greatly suffered. But advocates of the new media will tell you, the old media didn’t have such a sterling record of accuracy or reliability either.

One example of this is how NBC anchor Brian Williams sometimes fabricated details to embellish his news stories. In another example, it was discovered ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos had maintained undisclosed and partisan ties with the former Clinton administration even though he was actively reporting on the Clinton Foundation, to which he had apparently donated large amounts of money. Finally, many will remember that NBC’s Dateline series finally admitted rigging fuel tanks on GM cars to give the impression they regularly explode during rear-end collisions.

So it is clear, well established media players have no monopoly on objective journalistic virtue, nor are they always reliable as a source of truth. And with the increased number of sources of news data and the ability of a wide array of participants to join in and debunk information that is flawed or deceptive, the pressure to deliver accurate and timely information has clearly risen.

Regardless of your political opinions, your choices of where to get news and information have substantially increased. And your ability to publish information and quickly get it into the hands of a large number of people has also improved. Just a few decades ago, the only way a private individual could disseminate his or her opinions was to write a book and hope to somehow find funding for the thousands of dollars it would take to be printed and distributed. Today, publications can be authored and find themselves in the hands of millions of readers in a matter of hours or even minutes.

Information now travels at unprecedented speeds and with a degree of diversity in content never before seen. And the public, world wide, is the beneficiary.

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