Bad maps, mushrooms and the Shallows

Bad maps, mushrooms and the Shallows

I am in New Orleans for the Special Libraries Association’s Annual Meeting. One of the things I’m looking forward to (besides the food and seeing old friends, of course) is hearing the remarks of keynote speaker Nicholas Carr.  Carr has written a new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The central thesis seems to be that ” the Net is having such far-reaching intellectual consequences,”[NYT] or even more ominously, “computers are destroying our powers of concentration.”[NYT]

I admit to having experienced the “state of perpetual distractedness” more than once, and I also know the fearsome power of an Internet timesuck [my Exhibit A: TV Tropes – Abandon all hope and a couple of hours, all ye who enter here, and be careful about sampling the nightmare fuel].  But are Carr’s points accurate? Fair? Reasonable? Are they even something we can act on? I hope to read more to find out.

In preparation for SLA Annual, Doug Newcomb, SLA Chief Policy Officer, asks in a blog post regarding Carr’s argument, “That has to make you wonder: Is less-than-perfect information a liability? Can you hold a party liable for the use, or misuse, of reasonably good information?” The post points to Carr’s editorial in the Washington Post that starts with the following:

Just before dawn on the morning of Jan. 19, 2009, a Los Angeles woman named Lauren Rosenberg was hit by a car while crossing a four-lane highway in Park City, Utah. Last month, more than a year after the accident, she filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the route for her walk had been suggested by Google Maps. She’s asking for more than $100,000 in damages, in part to cover the hefty medical bills she says she incurred.

Should Google be held liable for negligence based on “bad” or “less perfect” information? As a general principle, publishers of books, magazines, etc., which include dubious, even bad information, such as which mushrooms are not poisonous, aren’t liable (assuming it’s not defamatory, or the publisher had a duty that was breached and led directly to the injury of the plaintiff). As for maps … it’s a bit stickier:

Aeronautical charts are highly technical tools. They are graphic depictions of technical, mechanical data.

Courts tend to distinguish between one-on-one communication, where if an information-giver acts negligently or fraudulently, there is liability. For material published for wider audiences … not so much (I’m sure there COULD be exceptions, but this is the general rule).  Looking at professionals as well – doctors and lawyers are routinely sued for giving bad information to their clients, or at least often enough that the term malpractice can apply to such situations. Librarians and teachers, however, tend not to be held to the same standard, even when giving very direct, personalized and critical information to a single patron or student.  At least, I don’t know of any cases where a library system or librarian has been sued because they gave out wrong information … if you do, let me know.

Going back to the query of whether Google is likely to be found liable — the people who’ve left comments at some sites reporting on this story, such as Search Engine Land and the ABA Journal,  seem to think this case is not just laughable, but also frivolous and ridiculous.  Carr’s larger question, of whether the Internet and technology is changing us not only socially and economically, but also intellectually and biologically, is not likely to be resolved fully before Ms. Rosenberg’s situation, but there seems to be some food for thought in the discussion, even if you strenuously disagree.

Personally, despite years of appreciation for MapQuest and Google Maps, I think I’m still quite handy with a paper map … then again, I’ve never used a GPS system. Curiouser and curiouser.

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