Thoughts on the Internet’s Founding Myths

Whenever I put forth on the Internet’s numerous newsgroups, discussion fora and Websites a controversial view, an iconoclastic opinion, or a much-disputed thesis, the winning argument against my propositions starts with “everyone knows that …”. For a self-styled nonconformist medium, the Internet is the reification of herd mentality.

Actually, it is founded on the rather explicit belief in the implicit wisdom of the masses. This particularly pernicious strong version of egalitarianism postulates that veracity, accuracy, and truth are emergent phenomena, the inevitable and, therefore, guaranteed outcome of multiple interactions between users.

But the population of Internet users is not comprised of representative samples of experts in every discipline. Quite the contrary. The barriers to entry are so low that the Internet attracts those less gifted intellectually. It is a filter that lets in the stupid, the mentally ill, the charlatan and scammer, the very young, the bored, and the unqualified. It is far easier to publish a blog, for instance, than to write for the New York Times. Putting up a Website with all manner of spurious claims for knowledge or experience is easy compared to the peer review process that vets and culls scientific papers.

One can ever “contribute” to an online “encyclopedia”, the Wikipedia, without the slightest acquaintance the topic one is “editing”. Consequently, the other day, I discovered, to my utter shock, that Eichmann changed his name, posthumously, to Otto. It used to be Karl Adolf, at least until he was executed in 1962.

Granted, there are on the Internet isolated islands of academic merit, intellectually challenging and invigorating discourse, and true erudition or even scholarship. But they are mere islets in the tsunami of falsities, fatuity, and inanities that constitutes the bulk of User Generated Content (UGC).

Which leads me to the second myth: that access is progress.

Oceans of information are today at the fingertips of one and sundry. This is undisputed. The Internet is a vast storehouse of texts, images, audio recordings, and databases. But what matters is whether people make good use of this serendipitous cornucopia. A savage who finds himself amidst the collections of the Library of Congress is unlikely to benefit much.

Alas, most people today are cultural savages, Internet users the more so. They are lost among the dazzling riches that surround them. Rather than admit to their inferiority and accept their need to learn and improve, they claim “equal status”. It is a form of rampant pathological narcissism, a defense mechanism that is aimed to fend off the injury of admitting to one’s inadequacies and limitations.

Internet users have developed an ethos of anti-elitism. There are no experts, only opinions, there are no hard data, only poll results. Everyone is equally suited to contribute to any subject. Learning and scholarship are frowned on or even actively discouraged. The public’s taste has completely substituted for good taste. Yardsticks, classics, science – have all been discarded.

Study after study have demonstrated clearly the decline of functional literacy (the ability to read and understand labels, simple instructions, and very basic texts) even as literacy (in other words, repeated exposure to the alphabet) has increased dramatically all over the world.

In other words: most people know how to read but precious few understand what they are reading. Yet, even the most illiterate, bolstered by the Internet’s mob-rule, insist that their interpretation of the texts they do not comprehend is as potent and valid as anyone else’s.

Web 2.0 – Hoarding, Not Erudition

When I was growing up in a slum in Israel, I devoutly believed that knowledge and education will set me free and catapult me from my miserable circumstances into a glamorous world of happy learning. But now, as an adult, I find myself in an alien universe where functional literacy is non-existent even in developed countries, where “culture” means merely sports and music, where science is decried as evil and feared by increasingly hostile and aggressive masses, and where irrationality in all its forms  (religiosity, the occult, conspiracy theories) flourishes.

The few real scholars and intellectuals left are on the retreat, back into the ivory towers of a century ago. Increasingly, their place is taken by self-taught “experts”, narcissistic bloggers, wannabe “authors” and “auteurs”, and partisan promoters of (often self-beneficial) “causes”. The mob thus empowered and complimented feels vindicated and triumphant. But history cautions us that mobs have never produced enlightenment – only concentration camps and bloodied revolutions. the Internet can and will be used against us if we don’t regulate it.

Dismal results ensue:

The Wikipedia “encyclopedia” – a repository of millions of factoids, interspersed with juvenile trivia, plagiarism, bigotry, and malice – is “edited” by anonymous users with unlimited access to its contents and absent or fake credentials.

Hoarding has replaced erudition everywhere. People hoard e-books, mp3 tracks, and photos. They memorize numerous fact and “facts” but can’t tell the difference between them or connect the dots. The synoptic view of knowledge, the interconnectivity of data, the emergence of insight from treasure-troves of information are all lost arts.

In an interview in early 2007, the publisher of the New-York Times said that he wouldn’t mourn the death of the print edition of the venerable paper and its replacement by a digital one. This nonchalant utterance betrays unfathomable ignorance. Online readers are vastly different to consumers of printed matter: they are younger, their attention span is far shorter, their interests far more restricted and frivolous. The New-York Times online will be forced into becoming a tabloid – or perish altogether.

Fads like environmentalism and alternative “medicine” spread malignantly and seek to silence dissidents, sometimes by violent means.

The fare served by the electronic media everywhere now consists largely of soap operas, interminable sports events, and reality TV shows. True, niche cable channels cater to the preferences of special audiences. But, as a result of this inauspicious fragmentation, far fewer viewers are exposed to programs and features on science, literature, arts, or international affairs.

Reading is on terminal decline. People spend far more in front of screens – both television’s and computer – than leafing through pages. Granted, they read online: jokes, anecdotes, puzzles, porn, and e-mail or IM chit-chat. Those who try to tackle longer bits of text, tire soon and revert to images or sounds.

With few exceptions, the “new media” are a hodgepodge of sectarian views and fabricated “news”. The few credible sources of reliable information have long been drowned in a cacophony of fakes and phonies or gone out of business.

It is a sad mockery of the idea of progress. The more texts we make available online, the more research is published, the more books are written – the less educated people are, the more they rely on visuals and soundbites rather than the written word, the more they seek to escape reality and be anesthetized rather than be challenged and provoked.

Even the ever-slimming minority who do wish to be enlightened are inundated by a suffocating and unmanageable avalanche of indiscriminate data, comprised of both real and pseudo-science. There is no way to tell the two apart, so a “democracy of knowledge” reigns where everyone is equally qualified and everything goes and is equally merited. This relativism is dooming the twenty-first century to become the beginning of a new “Dark Age”, hopefully a mere interregnum between two periods of genuine enlightenment.

The Demise of the Expert and the Ascendance of the Layman

In the age of Web 2.0, authoritative expertise is slowly waning. The layman reasserts herself as a fount of collective mob “wisdom”. Information – unsorted, raw, sometimes wrong – substitutes for structured, meaningful knowledge. Gatekeepers – intellectuals, academics, scientists, and editors, publishers, record companies, studios – are summarily and rudely dispensed with. Crowdsourcing (user-generated content, aggregated for commercial ends by online providers) replaces single authorship.

A confluence of trends conspired to bring about these ominous developments:

1. An increasingly narcissistic culture that encourages self-absorption, haughtiness, defiance of authority, a sense of entitlement to special treatment and omniscience, incommensurate with actual achievements. Narcissistic and vain Internet users feel that they are superior and reject all claims to expertise by trained professionals.

2. The emergence of technologies that remove all barriers to entry and allow equal rights and powers to all users, regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, or skills: wikis (the most egregious manifestation of which is the Wikipedia), search engines (Google), blogging (that is rapidly supplanting professionally-written media), and mobiles (cell) phones equipped with cameras for ersatz documentation and photojournalism. Disintermediation rendered redundant all brokers, intermediaries, and gatekeepers of knowledge and quality of content.

3. A series of species-threatening debacles by scientists and experts who collaborated with the darkest, vilest, and most evil regimes humanity has ever produced. This sell-out compromised their moral authority and standing. The common folk began not only to question their ethical credentials and claim to intellectual leadership, but also to paranoidally suspect their motives and actions, supervise, and restrict them. Spates of scandals by scientists who falsified lab reports and intellectuals who plagiarized earlier works did nothing to improve the image of academe and its denizens.

4. By its very nature, science as a discipline and, more particularly, scientific theories, aspire to discover the “true” and “real”, but are doomed to never get there. Indeed, unlike religion, for instance, science claims no absolutes and proudly confesses to being merely asymptotic to the Truth. In medicine, physics, and biology, today’s knowledge is tomorrow’s refuse. Yet, in this day and age of maximal uncertainty, minimal personal safety, raging epidemics, culture shocks and kaleidoscopic technological change, people need assurances and seek immutables.

Inevitably, this gave rise to a host of occult and esoteric “sciences”, branches of “knowledge”, and practices, including the fervid observance of religious fundamentalist rites and edicts. These offered alternative models of the Universe, replete with parent-figures, predictability, and primitive rituals of self-defense in an essentially hostile world. As functional literacy crumbled and people’s intellectual diet shifted from books to reality TV, sitcoms, and soap operas, the old-new disciplines offer instant gratification that requires little by way of cerebral exertion and critical faculties.

Moreover, scientific theories are now considered as mere “opinions” to be either “believed” or “disbelieved”, but no longer proved, or, rather falsified. In his novel, “Exit Ghost”, Philip Roth puts this telling exclamation in the mouth of the protagonist, Richard Kliman: “(T)hese are people who don’t believe in knowledge”.

The Internet tapped into this need to “plug and play” with little or no training and preparation. Its architecture is open, its technologies basic and “user-friendly”, its users largely anonymous, its code of conduct (Netiquette) flexible and tolerant, and the “freedoms” it espouses are anarchic and indiscriminate.

The first half of the 20th century was widely thought to be the terrible culmination of Enlightenment rationalism. Hence its recent worrisome retreat . Moral and knowledge relativism (e.g., deconstruction) took over. Technology obliged and hordes of “users” applied it to gnaw at the edifice of three centuries of Western civilization as we know it.


Also Read:

The Six Sins of the Wikipedia

Is Education a Public Good?

The Idea of Reference

The Future of the Book

The Kidnapping of Content

The Internet and the Library

The Future of Online Reference

Will Content Ever be Profitable?

The Disintermediation of Content

The Future of Electronic Publishing

Free Online Scholarship – Interview with Peter Suber

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One Response

  1. […] fxboy1 wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptWhenever I put forth on the Internet’s numerous newsgroups, discussion fora and Websites a controversial view, an iconoclastic opinion, or a much-disputed thesis, the winning argument against my propositions starts with “everyone knows that …”. For a self-styled nonconformist medium, the Internet is the reification of herd mentality. Actually, it is founded on the rather explicit belief in the implicit wisdom of the masses. This particularly pernicious strong version of egalitarianism postulates that veracity, accuracy, and truth are emergent phenomena, the inevitable and, therefore, guaranteed outcome of multiple interactions between users. But the population of Internet users is not comprised of representative samples of experts in every discipline. Quite the contrary. The barriers to entry are so low that the Internet attracts those less gifted intellectually. It is a filter that lets in the stupid, the mentally ill, the charlatan and scammer, the very young, the bored, and the unqualified. It […] […]

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