Commentary

How Technology Has Increased Our Access to Information and Answers - Not All of Them Right

For all of the modern world -- and increasingly in lesser developed countries -- technology, particularly mobile access to the Internet, has removed traditional obstacles to information. There was a time when a bookshelf in nearly every home in America had encyclopedias, dictionaries, Almanacs and various other specialty reference books on hobbies and interests such as gardening, cooking, auto repair and even child-rearing. Big projects required a trip to the local library where the Dewey Decimal system - learned under duress in every elementary school - came in pretty handy.

At best the process of accessing and acquiring new information was arduous and limited by resources at hand. Moreover, the accuracy of information was limited by the publication dates of the resource material or perhaps by the author's or publisher's unstated point of view. Naturally, the spectrum of views and perspectives was severely limited by the difficulty of accessing them. We tended to trust what our versions of reference books and local newspapers and the Big Three television network news broadcasts said was fact. 

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The Internet, mobile, and the explosive growth of cable networks have profoundly changed the equation. Now when we want to know something we simply push a few buttons, hit a few mouse clicks, or access video news from every part of the world to gain fresh insights essentially unavailable to our parents.

But as with everything having to do with the infusion of technology in our lives, there is a downside. There is no "truth filter" that helps you -- or as they called it in the newsprint era: "Separate the wheat from the chaff." What your teenagers jokingly call TMI can be a real problem. Who hasn't done a Google search only to have millions of pages returned as "answers" and found conflicting information on the same subject even within the first five or six suggested reference points? Who is right? Who has a hidden agenda? Who is out to sell us their POV versus simply providing facts and figures?

One of the great frustrations of most parents I know is that their kids, who rely almost entirely on the Internet for their news, often spout urban myths and other profoundly ill informed opinions as "fact." They don't triangulate their information (reading it three differently places to make sure there is some consistency in what they think is "true") nor do they dig into the sources of their "information" to see if whoever is providing it has any kind of objective credibility.

As technology allows us to automate processes that used to be time consuming and fraught with mistakes, such as the buying and selling of online advertising inventory (the DSPs, RTB, SSPs and DMPs that we all find so confusing), many organizations are finding that, ultimately, there have to be human beings involved at critical junctures to make certain the machines have not run amuck and to make those subtle judgments that technology cannot yet accomplish. The art versus science, man versus machine debate grows exponentially with advances in technology.

The search business is no different. And in fact, with the inexorable shift of information inquiry to mobile platforms, human judgment becomes even more critical. Real estate on a mobile screen is precious and no one has the time, inclination, or bandwidth to sift through dozens of "suggested" resources provided by algorithmic recommendations generated by a machine. Asked and answered is a formula that can best be answered by human judgment. Moreover, a human at the other end of a query knows to draw on reliable information that machines cannot. 

Sure, there are lots of fact-based questions that a machine can learn how to answer. The height of Mt. Everest or who won the World Series last year are oft-asked kinds of questions that a database can memorize. But when something more complex is asked such as "What are the basic issues in dispute in Turkey right now?" it takes a thinking, rational human to provide a quick, easily digestible answer that is reliable and doesn't require numerous additional clicks.

Your parents never dreamed there would come a day when they could hold a credit card-sized "computer" in their hands and be able to ask it questions that would be delivered in less than a minute. The fact is, with all of the technology we have today, they still can't quickly do it without a human at the other end of their question.

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