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[2b2k] Truth as meta

I’m engaged in a multi-day conversation at The Well, led by Jon Lebkowskyjoin in! — about Too Big to Know, and found myself summing up the book as follows:

Traditional knowledge seemed like true content handed to us by competent experts. Networked knowledge seems like the work of humans who never quite get anything right.

Now, I’m of course not completely satisfied with that answer; if I were, I would have written a tweet instead of a book. But it leads to one of my many fears about this new knowledge ecosystem, which nevertheless holds such tremendous promise.

I think the Net only makes us smarter if we come to understand that truth is a complex of metadata — if I may put it in the least helpful way possible. In fact, you could substitute “authority” or “truth” in that sentence and have a less contentious way of putting it, and we can postpone the debate about whether there is really much of a difference between the two terms. Anyway, the simple point I’m failing to make is that the paper world tends toward establishing truths. Once established, they can be accepted without regard for the process by which they were established. Of course scholars and experts in the field will always be willing to challenge those processes, but our knowledge strategy has been to build upon a bedrock of established truths without having to re-establish each of them.

It is no accident that this mirrors the strengths and limitations of publishing truths on paper. Once published, paper-based works are literally independent of their sources. This independence enables truths to be distributed around the world, but at a cost. One of Plato’s problems with paper as opposed to dialogue was in fact that you can’t ask the paper any questions. Not only are we cut off from the processes that led to that truth, the paper seemingly inevitably takes on its own authority: If it made it through the editorial filters that the finitude of paper and bookshelves necessitate, then it must have some value.

It’s different on the Net. All it takes is a link to enable readers to see the processes — the drafts, the revisions, the arguments — that led to the page they’re reading. Authorial pride may get in the way of showing these processes, but increasingly the signal is flipping, so that not showing your work is taken as a sign of pretension, arrogance, or even fear, while showing the drafts and disagreements signals confidence and a commitment to truth…

…because truth on the Net needs to be more than the totality of statements that are true. For us to advance as a culture, we need to understand the human involvement in truth. We need to have as a guiding assumption that truth is something we argue about, that it is always seen from a particular historical and cultural position, that is never simply the statement that asserts something true.

And the Net is great at that. Links can lead us back to the processes that led to the assertions on the page, and links can lead us out into a world that interprets and challenges the assertions. Our overall experience of the Web as chaotic informs us that there are lots of different ideas, and, no, they don’t all fit together harmoniously.

If we stick with our old habits on the Net, then not only do we fail to advance, we regress. There are more untruths to learn on the Net than there ever were in the paper world. If we don’t grow into the assumption that truth always has a meta context, we will believe more flat-footed lies.

Now, I’m optimistic about this. I think some of these lessons are learned simply by being on the Web: Ideas are hyperlinked. The world is in disagreement. But these lessons are not inevitable, or at least they can be suppressed by our old instincts and by our intellectual laziness (or call it efficiency if you prefer): Just as when we see a bright shiny object, our eyes twitch toward it, when we see a bright rectangle of text and graphics, our brains twitch toward giving it credence. That was a much more useful (lazy/efficient) reflex in the paper days when publication entailed filtering. It is a habit that leads us away from truth in the Net age.

And the evidence is not entirely encouraging. One study — which I cannot find, thus causing my entire argument here to do the Happy Irony Dance— found that only a tiny percentage of students who consult Wikipedia ever look at the “talk” or “discussion” pages where Wikipedia’s assertions are argued. That’s in part a failure of education and a failure by Wikipedia to explain itself. It is in part a reflection of the fact that people generally come to an encyclopedia to get answers, not to read back-and-forth arguments. But apparently (see the Irony Dance above) only a small percentage of Wikipedia users even know what the Talk pages are.

One of the definitions of “fundamentalism” of any kind is that it is the assumption that texts speak for themselves, without interpretation or inquiry. Fundamentalism becomes much more dangerous when the seeker of belief has a near infinity of scriptures from which to choose. I believe the Net is making us far smarter, but on cloudy days I wonder.

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