November 1997


by Vanessa DiMauro and Lisa Schlegel

Nowhere in history has there been such a slippery issue around information dependability. In the oral tradition, it was the responsibility of the storyteller to insure that their narrative be passed down from generations to generation. This was the critical and imperative function of the storyteller. The storyteller took their charge with great pride and accountability to pass on the craft as well as the stories. The listener kept stories safely in their own memory, or relied on the storyteller to repeat it on request. This model cannot possibly support the volumes of firehose of information we wade in each day.

Then, of course came text based records which required a scribe to take down, in print form, the letter and the information. Although this was of a more traditionally scholarly bend than the storyteller, the scribe provided a valuable service to the community in matters of public record and legal documentation as well as historical documentation. Then came the printing press, the Dewy decimal system and the birth of public libraries. All of these cultural evaluations which involve the sharing of information were critical in the evolution of learning. Text was safely kept in public as well as private libraries. If you are fortunate or rich, you would have access to a well stocked library.

Radio, television, and documentary films all played large roles in the dissemination of information, and each media is responsible for the context of their message. The problem of referencing information distributed by Internet is most similar to this model than to the others. Perhaps content providers should be held accountable for the information they publish, and the Internet Service Providers who give assess to the Internet should provide archive services. The cost is the prohibitive factor and either the Internet information user, or the information provider will eventually pay for it.

One of the biggest obstacles that the Internet community faces is the issue of information accountability. The Web is user-friendly enough to illicit trust and seeming authority. But to what extend is the Internet community responsible for providing and maintaining accuracy and the information placed on the Net? Or for that matter, what about the information withheld from the Internet?

Information amnesia plights the Internet and erodes its credibility. Just as a patient who has suffered irrevocable memory loss, the Internet can not remember where it came from and does not know where it is going. Spots in time drive its collective memory instead of a healthy linear model. Who is responsibility for maintaining one's web-site and informing the community of changes in one's information status? For example, the Web can have the latest information as well as "outdated" information. However, true historic information often falls out of view. This may be a question of costs and volume. How important is it to keep, for example, information about a product that failed on the market two years ago? The answer may be different for the person who has an idea about a new product that could benefit from experience gained from the failed product. Where do they go for information? How will "historical" analysis be performed using the Web? If Historic information is not available, what we can learn from history will be lost.

Consider the Web page you use to prove a point in a research paper. Can others go to that page to verify your information, or draw conclusions on their own? Will you have to copy each and every article you like on the Web because there are no guarantee that it will be there tomorrow?

In many ways, this ownerless forum is a land without rules nor procedures for dealing with its content. And, the impact upon the community is painful in that we, as members of the Internet community cannot depend upon information that we find today being where we left it tomorrow. The Internet is the information that is available at the moment. We call this Internet Amnesia.

We propose that Internet Amnesia be defined as the condition that effects knowledge gained exclusively through Internet resources. There are no guarantees that the valuable information or sites of fondness that you found and carefully bookmarked last month, last week or even an hour ago can be retrieved complete with data. And, it is statistically improbably that the sites you find today will be there tomorrow and retrievable. Instead, site owners can delete, move or merge their web-site at any given time. There is no one to formally notify.

Internet ISPs are closing and being consumed by larger providers at an astonishing rate. This has an impact on a web-site's URL. These are some of the more common mitigating factors that lead to the loss of information, and it could be argued, subsequently power. Internet amnesia is not without serious implication if the Internet community and professionals at large are to seriously consider the medium to be a professional and personal resource. Certainly, the loosely configured "system" of information sharing on the Internet has the potential to subvert the traditional hegemonic structure of the "Information Equals Power" equation. But at what cost? And, how do we move from here to there?

Ultimately, the cost will be paid by the responsible or most liable party. In most cases, that party will be the individual using and subsequently needing the information. The individual may rely on the tactics they currently use for text. They may download files and store them in their personal library. This presents a host of problems such as data volume, disaster recovery, data version control, and proof of authenticity. These are daunting obstacles for individual subscribers. The redundancy alone is horrifying.

A better solution may be the creation of a new industry niche-- A Brain Memory Bank, which would be the equivalent of an Internet library. Mass-storage company(s) could keep and manage information deemed valuable to their subscribers. They would index and protect the files and charge subscription or usage fees. Multiple Memory Banks in this new information industry would ensure that information could withstand most disasters, both technical and financial.

On the other hand, technology may save us yet. Data storage is becoming cheaper and retrieval technology is accelerating our access. One day soon we may be able to hold the entire Library of Congress on the tip of our index finger. In that case, the remedy for Internet amnesia would be a simple chip replacement.

Vanessa DiMauro ( Vanessa DiMauro is director of member research and community for CIN, a division of Cambridge Technology. She has been a research practitioner for more than 10 years. Author of more than 45 research articles and invited presentations, her work focuses on building and sustaining on-line communities. Most recently, she was the keynote speaker at the SEATCCO conference in Thailand.

Lisa Schlegel ( Lisa Schlegel is the director of project management services for Network Centric Solutions at BBN Planet Corporation. She has over 14 years in the information technology industry and has specialized in network and Internet technology at companies such as Sun Microsystems and Bell Atlantic Broadband Systems.

Copyright © 1997 by Vanessa DiMauro and Lisa Schlegel. All Rights Reserved.

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