Now that it is no longer possible to dismiss the Internet as a web of vacuity, Net sceptics have fallen back on the argument that you can never tell whether information on the Web is reliable. The reflex response is to cast about for sources of authority, brand names that offer to guarantee truth. Enter Encyclopaedia Britannica, still the leading brand in the knowledge authority market. Having turned its own content digital, with a CD-ROM and an online subscription service, it is now setting itself up as a gateway with the Britannica Internet Guide, a free search service which provides links to selected Web sites. These, in the words of UK chief executive Tim Pethick, have been given the Britannica "imprimatur".
The Guide's 25 staff award this honour on the basis of the "depth, accuracy, completeness, and utility" of information, how often a site is revised, its design, its use of multimedia, and its authors' credentials. However, these factors are aggregated by a mysterious process into a single star rating, obscuring a site's particular strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, what is the searcher to infer about a site which does not appear in the initial selection of 65,000? Has it failed to make the grade, or has the Guide just not got round to it?
Once a site has been approved, it may very well raise interesting questions about knowledge and authority. The Britannica Guide is a radically different kind of resource from the Encyclopaedia, and the difference is acute in areas where beliefs about truth simply cannot be reconciled. Search Britannica Online for articles on astrology, and you will be presented with overviews which make clear that in the eyes of science, astrology is pseudoscience. They note that while the French psychologist Michel Gauquelin has tried to put it back on a scientific footing, his results "are at best inconclusive". A broader cultural perspective is given by the observation that in some societies, only a small elite has been trained in Western physics, allowing astrology to retain its academic status in some Indian universities.
Consulting the Guide, by contrast, generates links to a couple of New Age sites, a Pagan one, a rationalist "skeptic" site, and the Chicago Tribune, which carries horoscopes. The skeptic is on an equal footing with the pagan, and it is difficult to see why the Trib makes the cut, unless the Britannica people think its horoscopes are more accurate than those in other papers. Quite why the New Age sites were chosen is not im- mediately obvious, though it wasn't on grounds of design. And without answering the underlying question, of just what would constitute an authoritative New Age site, the Guide is just a search engine with five finds instead of 500.
Britannica's selectivity is probably a strength when the accuracy of a site's content is not open to debate. Factual, technical sites are now the salt of the Web's earth, and the Guide may prove a swifter route to them than robot search engines. But the Web will be dead if it doesn't continue to provide a more congenial habitat than older media for diversity, controversy and ideas. If it is to do so, then its inhabitants have to recognise that there is only one way to assess information. It's called using your own intelligence.
QUEEN JANE, SURELY?
The Republic of Pemberley advertises itself as "your haven in a world programmed to misunderstand obsession with things Austen." It is a tolerant state, accepting screen adaptations, and allowing a remarkable freedom of expression to citizen-authors who post stories they consider to be Austenesque in spirit. Perhaps the site's liberalism is the reason it is not a monarchy, which would seem more in tune with Jane Austen's own view of the world. Although it lacks a written constitution, there can be little doubt that the unwritten one begins "We hold this truth to be self-evident, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
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The Peace Page is being constructed by Kerry, who grew up in Holywood, County Down, emigrated because of the Troubles, and now lives in Perth, western Australia. Kerry's ties to the old country include a battery of hyperlinks to Irish parties in the Troubles, from the various flavours of Unionism to tiny Republican splinters. With a characteristic Republican appeal to precedence, Sinn Fein's site boasts of being the first Irish party to go on to the Web. On the other side of the turf, the Ulster Democratic Unionist Party's site hammers its own point home in the familiar style of the UDUP leader Ian Paisley, proclaiming that it has been rated best Northern Irish political party Web site by the loyalist Belfast Telegraph, the nationalist Belfast Newsletter, and the conspicuously pluralist Fortnight magazine.
Like Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein site professes its high principles without ever seeming to blink. You might not expect much of a sense of fun round at the UDUP, either, but it welcomes you with a jaunty "Hi!", and offers you a snatch of a Loyalist marching band playing The Sash. The links to movie clips of Big Ian himself are not yet live, though, and one presumes that the promised Chinese version is the Democratic Unionist idea of a joke.
WIN A COMPUTER WAREHOUSE BOSTON PC WORTH pounds 1,400
The open secret in the computer industry is that complex and demanding though many business and design programs are, the need for the greatest resources often comes from people playing the latest games. Intel, makers of the chips which most of the world's computers cook with, has admitted this by upgrading its processors - "MMX" are the letters to look out for and Intel describe the new ingredient as "fun". Computer Warehouse Boston PC owners, by this reckoning, should have loads of fun, as MMX meets a super-speedy233MHz processor, and even the most memory-hungry business applications, from QuarkXPress to Adobe Photoshop, should zoom around thanks to the generous 64Mb of RAM. In fact, reading the list of specifications, including the super-fast Sony CD-Rom drive, is enough to make any aspiring geek dribble with anticipation.
For more information on the Boston PC and other Computer Warehouse products, write to Computer Warehouse Group, CW Building, 1 Amalgamated Drive, West Cross Centre, Great West Road, London TW8 9EZ. Or phone 0181 400 1224.
Computer Warehouse, in conjunction with the Independent on Sunday, is giving away a Boston PC. To enter, send all three correct answers on a postcard, with your name, address and telephone number, to the PC/Independent on Sunday Competition, Computer Warehouse Group, CW Building, 1 Amalgamated Drive, West Cross Centre, Great West Road, London TW8 9EZ. Closing date: 24 November. For results, see Section 2 of this paper on 30 November.
1. Which of the following would you plug in to the PS2 port?
2. Memory and hard disk are commonly referred to in Mb. What does Mb stand for?
3. Which two companies make up the Wintel alliance?
1. Normal Newspaper Publishing plc competition rules apply. For a full copy please send an sae to the Marketing Department at the Independent. 2.The competition is open to all UK residents, excluding employees of Newspaper Publishing plc, Computer Warehouse Group and associated companies and agents, or members of their families. 3. The results are final and no discussion or correspondence can be entered into regarding them or other matters.Reuse content