A New Lack of Information

I was sitting at my computer this evening googling about a half-formed question, something like “how much of the current U.S. and world economy is made up of goods versus services, how is a ‘good’ defined, and is there any sign that the U.S. service economy is losing ground in the post-Covid era?”–when it occurred to me (or rather, occured to me all over again) that all of the sources I found online were not very good. Now, if I brought a little prior knowledge and intentional effort the question, if I searched for respectable public institutions–like the Fed–that put their data online, I would surely find a start to these questions. But these are things that one would have to know. For the average person, you want to know the answer to something non-commercial, you just start typing questions as they occur to you, and you will probably give up clueless because online search these days is remarkably bad. It’s not that all of my questions had been targeted by low-quality content farm sites, but rather that a lot of the more mainstream sites that came up first–like a link to a LinkedIn post, or a Forbes article, or a Harvard Business Review blurb– were all generalist filler. And on down for several pages, with the occasional news article from a few years ago or a general Wikipedia topic (”Service economy”) thrown in. Search is not very good in large part because the sites that count as “average” are mediocre at best.

And don’t get me started on bots like ChatGPT. Yes, you ask a question like this of a bot and you get a coherent answer back, but whence this answer from the void? Maybe some services like Bing will give you a few citations attached to the answer, but guess what? Those citations are just sourced from the same search services I was complaining about above. If the two services that currently define the information landscape are search (Google et al) and chat (ChatGPT etc), then we are choosing between a graveyard of irrelevant “content” and a polished but low-context book report.

Even as more life is spent online, the online world gets thinner and thinner. More often, when I want to know something, I find myself confronting a situation that had nearly slipped from my memory: how would I figure this out if I wasn’t online? Who would I ask, and how would I go about asking it? What identifiable source would I need to read? To me, the idea that a little more space might be opening up behind the screen is an exciting thought. But I do worry that if the internet completely falls apart as an information ecosystem, there will be nothing left to backstop it anymore. What would a revitalized world of information look like, without that now-old idea of the “world wide web?”

Tags information internet