Yesterday I participated as a color commentator in a 90 minute debate between Clive Thompson [twitter:pomeranian99] and Steve Easterbrook [twitter:smeasterbrook], put on by the CBC’s Q program.The topic was “Does the Net Make Us Smart or Stupid?” It airs today, and you can hear it here.
It was a really good discussion between Clive and Steve, without any of the trumped up argumentativeness that too often mars this type of public conversation. It was, of course, too short, but with a topic like this, we want it to bust its bounds, don’t we?
My participation was minimal, but that’s why we have blogs, right? So, here are two points I would have liked to pursue further.
First, if we’re going to ask if the Net makes us smart or stupid, we have to ask who we’re talking about. More exactly, who in what roles? So, I’d say that the Net’s made me stupider in that I spend more of my time chasing down trivialities. I know more about Miley Cyrus than I would have in the old days. Now I find that I’m interested in the Miley Phenomenon — the media’s treatment, the role of celebrity, the sexualization of everything, etc. — whereas before I would never have felt it worth a trip to the library or the purchase of an issue of Tiger Beat or whatever. (Let me be clear: I’m not that interested. But that’s the point: it’s all now just a click away.)
On the other hand, if you ask if the Net has made scholars and experts smarter, I think the answer has to be an almost unmitigated yes. Find me a scholar or expert who would turn off the Net when pursuing her topic. All discussions of whether the Net makes us smarter I think should begin by considering those who are in the business of being smart, as we all are at some points during the day.
Now, that’s not really as clear a distinction as I’d like. It’s possible to argue that the Net’s made experts stupider because it’s enabled people to become instant “experts” on topics. (Hat tip to Visiona-ary [twitter:0penCV] who independently raised this on Twitter.) We can delude ourselves into thinking we’re experts because we’ve skimmed the Wikipedia article or read an undergrad’s C- post about it. But is it really a bad thing that we can now get a quick gulp of knowledge in a field that we haven’t studied and probably never will study in depth? Only if we don’t recognize that we are just skimmers. At that point we find ourselves seriously arguing with a physicist about information’s behavior at the event horizon of a black hole as if we actually knew what we were talking about. Or, worse, we find ourselves disregarding our physician’s advice because we read something on the Internet. Humility is 95% of knowledge.
Here’s a place where learning some of the skills of journalists would be helpful for us all. (See Dan Gillmor‘s MediActive for more on this.) After all, the primary skill of a particular class of journalists is their ability to speak for experts in a field in which the journalist is not her/himself expert. Journalists, however, know how to figure out who to consult, and don’t confuse themselves with experts themselves. Modern media literacy means learning some of the skills and all of the humility of good journalists.
Second, Clive Thompson made the excellent and hugely important point that knowledge is now becoming public. In the radio show, I tried to elaborate on that in a way that I’m confident Clive already agrees with by saying that it’s not just public, it’s social, and not just social, but networked. Jian Ghomeshi, the host, raised the question of misinformation on the Net by pointing to Reddit‘s misidentification of one of the Boston bombers. He even played a touching and troubling clip by the innocent person’s brother talking about the permanent damage this did to the family. Now, every time you look up “Sunil Tripathi” on the Web, you’ll see him misidentified as a suspect in the bombing.
I responded ineffectively by pointing to Judith Miller’s year of misreporting for the NY Times that helped move us into a war, to make the point that all media are error prone. Clive did a better job by citing a researcher who fact checked an entire issue of a newspaper and uncovered a plethora of errors (mainly small, I assume) that were never corrected and that are preserved forever in the digital edition of that paper.
But I didn’t get a chance to say the thing that I think matters more. So, go ahead and google “Sunil Tripathi”. You will have to work at finding anything that identifies him as the Boston Bomber. Instead, the results are about his being wrongly identified, and about his suicide (which apparently occurred before the false accusations were made).
None of this excuses the exuberantly irresponsible way a subreddit (i.e., a topic-based discussion) at Reddit accused him. And it’s easy to imagine a case in which such a horrible mistake could have driven someone to suicide. But that’s not my point. My point here is twofold.
First, the idea that false ideas once published on the Net continue forever uncorrected is not always the case. If we’re taking as our example ideas that are clearly wrong and are important, the corrections will usually be more obvious and available to us than in the prior media ecology. (That doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of getting facts right in the first place.)
Second, this is why I keep insisting that knowledge now lives in networks the way it used to live in books or newspapers. You get the truth not in any single chunk but in the web of chunks that are arguing, correcting, and arguing about the corrections. This, however, means that knowledge is an argument, or a conversation, or is more like the webs of contention that characterize the field of living scholarship. There was an advantage to the old ecosystem in which there was a known path to authoritative opinions, but there were problems with that old system as well.
That’s why it irks me to take any one failure, such as the attempt to crowdsource the identification of the Boston murderers, as a trump card in the argument the Net makes us stupider. To do so is to confuse the Net with an aggregation of public utterances. That misses the transformative character of the networking of knowledge. The Net’s essential character is that it’s a network, that it’s connected. We therefore have to look at the network that arose around those tragically wrong accusations.
So, search for Sunil Tripathi at Reddit.com and you will find a list of discussions at Reddit about how wrong the accusation was, how ill-suited Reddit is for such investigations, and how the ethos and culture of Reddit led to the confident condemning of an innocent person. That network of discussion — which obviously extends far beyond Reddit’s borders — is the real phenomenon…”real” in the sense that the accusations themselves arose from a network and were very quickly absorbed into a web of correction, introspection, and contextualization.
The network is the primary unit of knowledge now. For better and for worse.