Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A pencil needs no electricity

In the June issue of Australian Bookseller & Publisher, retiring Wiley MD Peter Donoughue wrote a swansong article claiming the ASA knew next to nothing about educational publishing and rubbishing our research in the area. Donoughue was so pleased with his opus he rushed up to me at the Australian Industry Book Awards to ask if I had read it. I have now, and I can only say it’s fortunate Peter is retiring. Another educational publisher, Peter Debus, offers a more balanced view of educational publishing in the August 2008 issue of the Author. Debus accepts that the ASA is right in its assessment that the educational publishing sector is in its death throes. He doesn’t maintain Donoughue’s “head in the sand” position.
Yet the ASA, Debus and Donoughue are all describing the same elephant. How can we diverge so much in our descriptions?
The answer lies in judicious use of the facts. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 25 July that federal public servants were involved in a systematic revision of Wikipedia entries about federal politicians. The parliamentary librarian was reported to have emailed instructions on how to alter Wikipedia entries to ensure the entries displayed only favourable information.
We can be sure that the practice is not unique to Canberra. It goes on all over the world. Why? Because it can. Wikipedia is open to all. It claims that this is its great strength. It says it can collect a massive amount of facts. And it does. You can read biographies of porn stars alongside entries about Australian politicians as well as overlong essays on arcane musicians and brief entries on Australian poets.
I even rate a mention. And that’s just a few of the reasons why Wikipedia’s authority should never be trusted.
The trouble with a freely available and editable source of information like Wikipedia, or the entire internet, is that it is so easily manipulable. And believable. That’s why politicians in the UK, US and Australia increasingly use YouTube and internet communications in elections. And it’s also why governments in China, Vietnam and Burma attempt to restrict access to the internet, or at least try to control content. Even a lovefest like the Olympics was not enough for Chinese authorities to release their grip on internet communications. And maybe we have to ask if they are right when our own politicians use the internet for their own nefarious propaganda purposes.
Wikipedia makes some claims to informational authority. Because of this, or perhaps because journalists like anyone else prefer the easy option, Wikipedia seems to have replaced a number of journalistic research skills. Students also relay on its immediacy and convenience. I’m not averse to it myself. I will often check for information there. However, and I am thankful for my editorial training for this, I don’t take Wikipedia information as the ultimate authority. Goodness, I’ll even consult some fossil reference source such as a book.
I admit I may be too much of a cynic, but these days I don’t trust any source of information unless I can verify the information there with at least two independent sources. Such rules used to be de rigeur for editors and journalists, although there were some sources we accepted.
In times past I would have trusted the Australian Encyclopaedia, for whose fourth edition I created the index, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Both of these publications had in place sound editorial polices and practices that ensured any errors were kept to a bare minimum. Were they error-free? No, but they had the gravitas of both peer review and editorial rigour.
What do I mean by editorial rigour? This is best answered with an example. As the literary heir of our Founding President Dal Stivens, recently the ASA received a number of his files and manuscripts. Included in these is the original copy-edited manuscript of Dal’s children’s book The Bushranger (Collins, 1978), the corrected galley-proofs and a letter from Miss Margaret R. Jones, the copy-editor. Among other queries, all guided by the purpose of making the book as accurate as possible for young readers, Miss Jones asks Dal to check his references to “pines”. She notes that Pinus radiata was not introduced into Victoria until 1857, leading her to question his usage since the book is set at an earlier time. Miss Jones was relying only on print sources, but I wonder whether anyone would even think to query such a point today.
I understand that the creators and editors of Wikipedia claim their data has a level of accuracy similar to the old print encyclopaedias, but the only research I have been able to uncover to validate those claims considers scientific articles. Wikipedia articles, contributed by over 13,000 volunteers, vary in quality, style and accuracy. They haven’t been subjected to a rigorous editorial audit.
Still, that doesn’t alter the fact that printed encyclopaedias have passed on, victims of the instant “authority” of the internet and Wikipedia. The skills involved in their production are being forgotten in the rush to accept instant information. But is that information any use? It is not the amount of information we can access that is fundamentally important, but what we do with it, which is why the governments of China, Vietnam and Burma have a much better understanding of the power of knowledge than do the politicians of the UK, US and Australia.
Knowledge is power.
I could lament the good old days. But again why? What was good about a reference book so heavy that it could cause a hernia? Or door-to-door salesmen hustling working class families into over-priced payment schemes for a rapidly aging set of books?
Even when I was doing my bit for the sum of knowledge about Australia in 1983, we were aware the encyclopaedia had a limited life. We had no idea of the internet, though. At that time, the IT specialists advised us that printed information would all flow onto CD-ROMs and these would be what people would use to access reference works. Hence part of my indexing brief was to ensure my index comprised logical indicators for both print and electronic formats.
But as we know the CD-ROM revolution never happened. And now we have the internet and DVDs to play with. So much so that many children these days gain almost all their information over the web, using a computer keyboard and mouse. On 28 July 2008 the Herald reported that some students preparing for the NSW Higher School Certificate needed to learn handwriting to be able to sit the written exams, which restrict typing to disabled students.
It shocks me that students could reach adulthood and lack the ability to write words. I imagine there will be some who would argue that this is just the way of the world, another sign of “progress”, another change to the way we live life.
These people would argue that life changes because technology changes. And I agree that the wheel was only invented because it made life easier than dragging things along the ground. But I worry that our current dependence on technology puts us a precarious position because the technology we rely on is dependent upon the provision of energy, particularly electrical energy, and in creating that energy we threaten our very existence.
We need to keep some skills that do not require any more energy than picking up a pencil. We need to be able to check our facts and, a very old skill, sort the wheat from the chaff, even in our assessment of the state of educational publishing. Otherwise we trust only new technology, turn to our plasma screens and burn down the future.
But what’s the point in going faster if we are merely going to crash into a brick wall sooner?

Copyright © 2008 Australian Society of Authors and Jeremy Fisher

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