Temptations and pitfalls in a web-savvy world

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Interesting old world we live in, where a lesbian blogger in Syria, Amina Abdallah Aral al Omari, turns out to actually be a 40-year-old American studying at Edinburgh University.

Tom MacMaster, who’s studying for his doctorate, says he made up the Syrian lesbian alter ego and her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, so that he could make points about Arab issues without simply being dismissed.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the dean of medicine at the University of Alberta was caught, mid-delivery, in the process of stealing an entire graduation banquet speech from another doctor.

Surgeon Atul Gawande gave the original speech at Stanford University’s medical school convocation in 2010, and it was subsequently printed in The New Yorker: University of Alberta dean Dr. Philip Baker gave a virtually identical speech last Friday, but students caught on so fast that they were actually able to download Gawande’s speech on smart phones and follow along as Dr. Baker read the speech word for word in some places.

Two different lows for the Internet world, and two different problems — but both show the incredible reach and power of the web.

MacMaster was able to hide in the web for four years, virtually trackless and in plain sight, even though he used a stolen picture of a woman from Facebook (one that, had they seen it, she and her friends would have realized immediately a hoax was involved). MacMaster even struck up a romantic electronic relationship — with hundreds of emails — with a Canadian woman.

For his part, Baker was absolutely unable to hide from the Internet, even during something as short as an after-dinner speech.

Both have apologized — both also sported lame excuses for their efforts.

Baker? Gawande’s speech “resonated” with him, so he borrowed parts — and then more and more parts. And he should have given credit. (A student making the same mistake in an essay would fail, or be tossed out of a university like the one Dean Baker helps run.)

MacMaster? Well, he blames vanity, but if you sift through his comments in an interview with The Guardian, it basically reads like he did it because it turned out that he could.

Both cases demonstrate, once again, something we almost take for granted: the incredible and virtually instantaneous power of the Internet. People who have grown up with the web at their fingertips barely realize it: older users have probably forgotten it.

But I started in the media before the Internet really existed, when research included things like vertical files of newspaper clippings and musty archives. Heck, I owe my employment to limited information: the Southam chain needed someone in Toronto, some 27 years ago, to talk to reporters from other Ontario cities, hike across town to the provincial Registry of Companies, and hunt down the names of company shareholders and directors. Someone had to cut up the newspapers and keep the vertical files current. It paid my bills and started my career.

When you look back at all that incredible legwork and think about the shoe leather involved, you can’t help but be astounded by the sheer power of the web. Monday — just Monday — I read a series of Canadian and international newspapers, downloaded Nalcor corporate documents, read through them on screen, read through a series of House of Assembly debates, not to mention a host of other research that, now, can be done right from a single computer.

And access is getting broader, not narrower. More and more, newspapers and other media include raw documents and reports online to accompany reporting: the pool is getting astoundingly large and deep. There are huge benefits to that, and huge time savings, too. There are also massive quality-of-information problems. Things are not always as they seem, no matter how polished and professional they appear on the surface.

Baker and MacMaster? Well, they show that really deep pools can have really dark corners, and that if you’re going to go swimming in the information ocean, you’d better have your wits about you and your eyes wide open.

Russell Wangersky is the editorial page

editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: University of Alberta, Stanford University, New Yorker Southam The Telegram

Geographic location: Syria, Damascus, Canada Toronto Ontario

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  • excellent article
    June 14, 2011 - 09:44

    great points; excellent column;