Joho the Blog » [2b2k] Truth, knowledge, and not knowing: A response to “The Internet Ruins Everything”

[2b2k] Truth, knowledge, and not knowing: A response to “The Internet Ruins Everything”

Quentin Hardy has written up on the NYT Bits blog the talk I gave at UC Berkeley’s School of Information a few days ago, refracting it through his intelligence and interests. It’s a terrific post and I appreciate it. [Later that day: Here's another perspicacious take on the talk, from Marcus Banks.]

I want to amplify the answer I gave to Quentin’s question at the event. And I want to respond to the comments on his post that take me as bemoaning the fate of knowledge in the age of the Net. The post itself captures my enthusiasm about networked knowledge, but the headline of Quentin’s post is “The Internet ruins everything,” which could easily mislead readers. I am overall thrilled about what’s happening to knowledge.

Quentin at the event noted that the picture of networked knowledge I’d painted maps closely to postmodern skepticism about the assumption that there are stable, eternal, knowable truths. So, he asked, did we invent the Net as a tool based on those ideas, or did the Net just happen to instantiate them? I replied that the question is too hard, but that it doesn’t much matter that we can’t answer it. I don’t think I did a very good job explaining either part of my answer. (You can hear the entire talk and questions here. The bit about truth starts at 46:36. Quentin’s question begins at 1:03:19.)

It’s such a hard question because it requires us to disentangle media from ideas in a way that the hypothesis of entanglement itself doesn’t allow. Further, the play of media and ideas occurs on so many levels of thought and society, and across so many forms of interaction and influence, that the results are emergent.

It doesn’t matter, though, because even if we understood how it works, we still couldn’t stand apart from the entanglement of media and ideas to judge those ideas independent of our media-mediated involvement with them. We can’t ever get a standpoint that isn’t situated within that entanglement. (Yes, I acknowledge that the idea that ideas are always situated is itself a situated idea. Nothing I can do about that.)

Nevertheless, I should add that almost everything I’ve written in the past fifteen years is about how our new medium (if that’s what the Net is (and it’s not)) affects our ideas, so I obviously find some merit in looking at the particulars of how media shape ideas, even if I don’t have a general theory of how that chaotic dance works.

I can see why Quentin may believe that I have “abandoned the idea of Truth,” even though I don’t think I have. I talked at the I School about the Net being phenomenologically more true to avoid giving the impression that I think our media evolve toward truth the way we used to think (i.e., before Thomas Kuhn) science does. Something more complex is happening than one approximation of truth replacing a prior, less accurate approximation.

And I have to say that this entire topic makes me antsy. I have an awkward, uncertain, unresolved attitude about the nature of truth. The same as many of us. I claim no special insight into this at all. Nevertheless, here goes…

My sense that truth and knowledge are situated in one’s culture, history, language, and personal history comes from Heidegger. I also take from Heidegger my sense of “phenomenological truth,” which takes truth as being the ways the world shows itself to us, rather than as an inner mental representation that accords with an outer reality. This is core to Heidegger and phenomenology. There are many ways in which we enable the world to show itself to us, including science, religion and art. Those ways have their own forms and rules (as per Wittgenstein). They are genuinely ways of knowing the world, not mere “games.” Nor are the truths these engagements reveal “pictures of reality” (to use Quentin’s phrase). They are — and I’m sorry to get all Heideggerian on you again — ways of being in the world. We live them. They are engaged, embodied truths, not mere representations or cognitions.

So, yes, I am among the many who have abandoned the idea of Truth as an inner representation of an outer reality from which we are so essentially detached that some of the greatest philosophers in the West have had to come up with psychotic theories to explain how we can know our world at all. (Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, you know who I’m talking about.) But I have not abandoned the idea that the world is one way and not another. I have not abandoned the idea that beliefs can seem right but be wrong. I have not abandoned the importance of facts and evidence within many crucial discourses. Nor have I abandoned the idea that it is supremely important to learn how the world is. In fact, I may have said in the talk, and do say (I think) in the book that networked knowledge is becoming more like how scientists have understood knowledge for generations now.

So, for me the choice isn’t between eternal verities that are independent of all lived historial situations and the chaos of no truth at all. We can’t get outside of our situation, but that’s ok because truth and knowledge are only possible within a situation. If the Net’s properties are closer to the truth of our human condition than, say, broadcast’s properties were, that truth of our human condition itself is situated in a particular historical-cultural moment. That does not lift the obligation on us poor humans beings to try to understand, cherish, and engage with our world as truthfully as we possibly can.

But the main thing is, no, I don’t think the Net is ruining everything, and I am (overall) thrilled to see how the Net is transforming knowledge.

19 Responses to “[2b2k] Truth, knowledge, and not knowing: A response to “The Internet Ruins Everything””

  1. I just say we know logic is true, and emphasize that two ways: 1) philosophers have long spoken of (and their reasoning is keyed critically to this) absolute certainty that we happen to know within the pure side of experience; and 2) otherwise we wouldn’t be able to reason (which is a practical-oriented emphasis that admittedly might admit some sort of strange logic-coming-out-of-chaos-in-the-empirical-world notion, but it is hard to really say it’s not a solid point).

    Among those philosophers is Husserl, of whom Heidegger was a student. Heidegger’s question of how to “make the leap” from the realm of inward insight to the question of Being, the question with which he launches Being and Time, actually “leans on” Husserl: the question only makes sense within the frame of Husserl’s bracketing of empirical presuppositions to find the certainty in inward insight. As in: there would be no such question for Heidegger to engage with otherwise, and thus Being and Time “traffics in” a dependence on Husserl.

    (Derrida does a similar move with Husserl in his argument for “differance” in Speech and Phenomena: he pokes a hole in Husserl by showing the contradiction between the “principle of principles” of Presence in the Logical Investigations on one hand, and the admission of alterity into the primordial substratum in The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness on the other hand; and then he “plugs the hole” with differance. He doesn’t make an independent argument for differance, or examine the implications for the veracity of Husserl’s whole project if it has this internal contradiction at a foundational level. Derrida instead “leans on” Husserl, implicitly valorizing his own project in relation to an implicit valorizing of Husserl. He hooks his project to the existing tradition of Husserliana while appearing to attack it.)

    That we don’t know empirical stuff with absolute certainty doesn’t seem to me so foundation-rocking, yet I think folks who doubt Truth are really expressing an outlook that ultimately just reflects the fact that we only know empirical stuff in a probabilistic way, from inductive evidence. Yet testing whether things make sense isn’t done solely by empirical reasoning; it involves (and people overlook this constantly) certain kinds of reasoning that are absolutely certain — such as logic.

  2. So what?

  3. This is a very honest and interesting perspective! I agree quite strongly with you.

  4. The Internet is a new way to disseminate knowledge but not a new way of knowing. Knowing is a function of consciousness and the Internet is not conscious.

    There are four ways of knowing: Sensing, Thinking, Imagining, and Intuiting. These four ways of knowing are pathways toward Truth which is a Consciousness that is Unitive, an Omniscient Consciousness.

    When Yeats announces that “the center cannot hold”, he is expressing the agonizing realization that the Modern World is no longer moving toward Truth, toward Unitive Consciousness, toward Omniscience.

    In Eastern traditions reaching Truth is equated with the attainment of Enlightenment.

    The Internet is neither Enlightened nor Truthful. The Internet says, “I disseminate, therefore, I am”.

    Can the kind of dissemination that the Internet provides lead to Truth, to Enlightenment? I believe it can, but I also believe that it can lead to Deception and Falsehood as well.

    My sense is that Truth is situated within Consciousness and therefore Truth is beyond both Culture and History.

    The quest for truth requires that one transcend Culture, History, and the Individual Egoic Self.

    The Internet provides moments of Truth, moments of Cultural and Historical transcendence when individual consciousnesses are able to meet and interact.

    The internet can be very effective at disseminating knowledge, but both its proliferation and its fascination may be attributed less to the way it brings knowledge to consciousness and more to the way in which it brings one consciousness to another consciousness.

  5. These time ordered strings of comments are not ideally arranged to let the commenters build on each other”s contributions. Perhaps we could replace the list with something arranged better, yet with good flexibility.

    I see Ward Cunningham is creating a federated wiki intended to promote sharing ideas while allowing each author to accept or reject suggested revisions.

    https://plus.google.com/u/0/105504498700784347852/about

    Horst Rittel invented hypertext on the Apple ][ to support IBIS, the Issue Based Information System. Now that has morphed into “Dialogue Mapping”, (a book by Jeff Conklin), when it’s about capturing a live discussion, and Issue Mapping when it’s neither face to face nor in a brief time period.

    The approach considers questions to be the foundation for discussion and requires each claim or position statement to be connected to the specific, explicit question to which it is an answer. I am continually amazed at how much clearer a claim is when you can read the question it is proposed to answer.

    The mapping protocol further permits multiple answers to any question and even proposed new, and better questions to encourage yet better answers. Each answer may then acquire multiple Pro and Con arguments. Any item can be the host for another question, a link to other clarifying information, or a footnote. (You play footnotes on a shoe horn.)

    Supporting such a protocol in a wiki would foster cooperative problem solving. It accommodates multiple viewpoints while not dissolving into mush. I believe it could make even a list of a hundred comments into a usable thoughtful discussion, especially if indexed by the questions.

  6. David, perhaps it is your ambivalence and fuzziness about the truth, and right and wrong, that allows you to direct so much hatred and so many falsehoods against hard working Internet service providers.

  7. To the extent that the Internet facilitates conscious awareness it becomes an effective tool that mediates consciousness.

    When the Internet claims it is the new mediator for Truth, it becomes a new Vatican. But this time, we are all given the status of – Pope.

    The Internet: Have faith in the new institutionalized organization that will lead you to – Truth, or the mere worship of itself as an institution.

    I post these comments as a way toward understanding my relationship with the Internet. Without David’s excellent Blog, I would not be thinking about these ideas which are beyond my own interests in Literature, Art, Consciousness, and Natural History.

    I have been watching excellent PBS programs showcasing the Old Bands and Singing Groups of the 50’s and 60’s. What a joy to remember so many songs from my younger days. How did I ever learn the lyrics for so many songs? I had a small mobile device that worked on batteries that went with me to the Beach (now renamed: The Jersey Shore). There were a few AM radio stations that played current Pop hits all day as I lay in the sun. How would I ever have learned about all of these groups and their songs without Radio!

    The transistor radio delivered Pop tunes, brief news, and advertisements. I have forgotten all of the news casts and every single advertisement but I can recall song lyrics I have not heard for 50 years.

    Truth is not a commercial venture. The Internet is a commercial venture. Just as the Commercial radio stations of the 1950’s disseminated music to the public (redefined commercially as: a market), so too, The Internet can disseminate culture, news, fact, knowledge, truth.

    The Internet and the computers that transcribe its messages are the source of unprecedented New Wealth. The accumulation of Wealth is the result of commercial success, and not not the result of the dissemination of Truth.

    Yet I share David’s optimism concerning the potentials for the dissemination of knowledge and the consequent contributions this dissemination makes toward the revelation of Truth.

    But I am not a “convert”. That “All truths will now be disseminated through the medium of the Internet” sounds like a new Sectarianism to me. There is a difference between ‘optimistic hope’ regarding the benefits of a new technology and ‘missionary zeal’.

    I am thrilled that I can travel to a nearby Independent Bookstore that has a Print on Demand (POD) publishing machine that can make me a copy of an out of print title from the Google Books database. I may never have been able to hold a print copy in my hand unless I traveled to a distant library; and I most certainly would not be able to add my comments in the margins.

    But I become upset when I hear prognostications concerning the death of print books. I feel as if I am hearing about a new form of ‘book burning’.

    Christian Churches were built upon the sites of Ancient
    Spiritual Worship in order to eradicate competing (called Pagan) forms of access to Divinity.

    To many, and especially to those secular humanists who believe that spirituality is an unfounded fantasy, these comparisons between the Internet and The Church may seem rather ridiculous (or religulous).

    But when technology claims Ubiquity and then further extols the Universality of an Internet that will mediate Truth to the masses as the “one and only” method for distribution of knowing (electronic books); I worry that the Universality of the Internet could become ‘catholic’.

    I also worry about a younger generation who play video games on computers inside an isolated room rather than playing “outside” in Nature.

    The Internet mediates rational knowledge very effectively but is much less effective or not effective at all when mediating Natural, Imaginal, or Intuitive Knowing.

    Is the Internet the ultimate Church of The Rational?

    I am also troubled by the use of ‘organic metaphors’ to describe the functions of the new technology. David speaks of “Ecologies” and he defines the Internet as a “place”.

    Technology is inherently ‘unnatural’. The Age of Reason (and surprisingly the Age of Religion) divided the world into Mind and Body, City and Wilderness, sacred and profane.

    The Internet can lead us toward truth if it can unify what has been divided. But computers are mere machines and it will take a new paradigm of human consciousness to unify an already unified world that has been divided by Reason.

    The use of organic metaphors to describe the activities of the Internet and its users seems to say that the Internet is a ‘holistic’ phenomenon.

    My fear is that the programmers who have transformed everything that exists into a code might try to convince us that everything is a code and only a code. More comprehensive than Mathematics itself, computer code can represent seemingly everything.

    Is computer code the new Gospel of Reason?

  8. At all events my own essays and dissertations about love and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be known and understood by all of you who read this and talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject of this essay. We will commence with a question: Does steak love lettuce? This question is implacably hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is a question: Does an electron love a proton, or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: Does a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting and critical response to this question is: no! He is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony and crazy about her. That is not the love of steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and neutron. This dissertation will show that the love of a man and a woman is not the love of steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me and fascinating to you but it is painful to
    Bill and Diane. That is love!

    Awareness is like consciousness. Soul is like spirit. But soft is not like hard and weak is not like strong. A mechanic can be both soft and hard, a stewardess can be both weak and strong. This is called philosophy or a world-view.

  9. [...] a lot more to think about in the post, and it was, in fact, rebutted by Weinberger. I recommend you read both, because the argument is central to a gaping cultural divide — one [...]

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