In a technological world saturated with information, the issue is less access to information than validity.
Writer Howard Rheingold ("Smart Mobs") says the overload of online information will require a new kind of literacy - an ability to judge the accuracy of information found on the Web.
"Crap detection - Hemingway's name for what digital librarians call credibility assessment - is another essential literacy. If all schoolchildren could learn one skill before they go online for the first time, I think it should be the ability to find the answer to any questions and the skills necessary to determine whether the answer is accurate or not" ("Attention is the fundamental literacy," Edge World Question 2010, www.edge.org).
Other scientists, technology users and philosophers responding to Edge.com on the effects of the Internet note that global participation can illustrate the ignobility of media attuned to the lowest common denominator.
"Watching an unbelievably beautiful video of Hubble probing the edge of space: unfathomable 17,000 comments, but half of them inane, gross, with atrocious spelling, insults from childish name-calling, immature outbursts, vicious moronic bullying to outright gibberish insanity," writes Kai Krause ("I think . . . there . . . 4am").
"The Internet brings the promise of connecting it all. But it could also connect it all . . . into one gigantic mess. The sum-total of human lack of knowledge" ("Real ethereal ether: A million lemmings can be wrong," Edge World Question 2010).
The World Wide Web is not unique among media venues for having both good and bad information. Reporters of "news" on all platforms, from tribal storytellers and town criers to 20th-century newspapers and television broadcasters, have misrepresented events and misstated facts, sometimes purposefully.
With any media, acceptance over time is a matter of trust. It's not that any given media platform will not have errors of omission and commission. It's whether over time, valid information from the medium substantially outweighs the errors.
The need to establish credibility and trust to achieve commercial success is the underlying basis for journalistic goals of fairness and objectivity, standards routinely breached for the sake of a good story.
Historian Paul Starr cites commercial influence on the storytelling that journalism espouses.
"Commerce both distorts and enlarges the public sphere; the incentive to attract more readers, listeners or viewers sometimes produces reckless sensationalism and sometimes engages new groups in public debate" ("The Creation of the Media," Paul Starr, Basic Books, 2004).
But Starr cites Walter Lippman, an advocate for journalistic standards, as despairing of the state of media in the 1920s in saying liberty is at risk "for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies."
Ability to detect lies and prevent published errors involves education, comprehension and a healthy level of skepticism, traits that apply to a good editor.
In the Edge discussions, MIT quantum mechanical engineer Seth Lloyd notes he narrowly avoided publishing an invalid paper in which he used a theorem found on the Internet that was incorrect.
"Over the years, I have found most statements in purely scientific reference articles on Wikipedia to be 99.44 percent correct. It's that last 0.56 percent that gets you . . .
"Prose, poetry and theorems posted on the Internet are no less insightful and brilliant than their paper predecessors: They are simply less edited. Moreover, just when we need them most, the meticulously trained editors of our newspapers, journals and publishing houses are being laid off in droves" ("Programming the universe," Edge World Question 2010).
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.