Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Republic 2.0

Okay, so I think what we were all trying to get at the other day- at least I was, and rather unsuccessfully- is that the Internet has pluses and minuses, and that it's a good idea to be mindful of, and to try to mitigate as much as possible, its negative aspects.

Happily, it looks like a University of Chicago law professor named Cass Sunstein has written a book, named Republic.com 2.0, dealing with several such issues, including a particular scenario that still disturbs me when I'm on the net. I'll be on a message board, discussing various and sundry things, and someone will pop up and post something that is blatantly inaccurate. Let's say- ''Well, everyone knows that the US found 1,000 nuclear weapons in Iraq during the invasion. But the mainstream media refused to report it.'' I don't find that disturbing because there are lots of people who believe a lot of bullshit. What disturbs me is that they always seem to be able to ''prove it'' by linking to twenty websites, all of which agree with them. And all of which are as professional-looking as the accurate websites, whichever those are. People used to joke that on television it's hard to tell the difference between Shakespeare and laundry detergent because they're dealt with in much the same way. On the Internet, it's hard to tell the difference between an account of the American Civil War and an account of the US government's destruction of the World Trade Towers. And it seems impossible to argue that the second is untrue.

Sunstein calls this ''niche-ification'', and to a certain extent, it happens in the outside world anyway. Philosophers have long dealt with how difficult it is to get an accurate picture of reality. And nobody would want to argue that that dreaded ''mainstream media'' is 100 percent accurate. I mean, it definitely says something about how bad the media has become when people think that CNN is less trustworthy than AngryDrunkPostalInspector.com. But, how do we find a neutral space on the net to tell us when we're full of shit?

Ideally, the way that democracy works is that we have an open public sphere, like the Internet, and people argue with the cranks until they come to see reason. And I think that my own views of various topics, including the net, have probably become more reasonable in this way. At least, I hope so. But, what do we do when masses of citizens seem to see having their own echo chamber as a birth right?

Another Sky

9 comments:

Holly said...

My perception of what those people are doing tells me that they're doing the same thing religious fanatics do. They're pointing to an unsourced document and calling it the word of God. And, perhaps it's not socially responsible of me, but for my own sanity, I tend to handle them the same way. I go somewhere else. It's never been my experience that one can fruitfully have a discussion past the point where someone introduces the kind of facts that come packaged in quotation marks.

However, about the arguing with the cranks until they see reason thing... I'm dubious. For the same reason that I walk away from fanatics. Can't-we-all-just-get-along is one of the Great Myths. Joseph Campbell should've written a book about that one.

As far as the echo chamber thing... that's a hallmark of immaturity. The world revolves around the individual right up until the individual gets whacked across the eyes with a rubber basketball shoe. If people aren't getting whacked across the eyes, that's a failure of values, not of the internet per se.

There seems to be a tendency to personify the internet, and I find that very disturbing. From my perspective, the internet is not, for instance, driving down literacy rates, de-centralizing social structures, diluting information, or ripping off people's bank information. The internet isn't (yet?) a consciousness of any kind.

Literacy rates are going down because little or no value is placed on the relevant skills. People are not encouraged to see the rewards of being literate, and so they disregard it. Social structures are being undermined because little or no value is place on the relevant skills. People are not being taught the value of connections with neighbors and so on, and so they're not making them. That one, I think, is especially part of the culture of individual car ownership, and it goes back a ways. Bank information is being ripped off because the criminals are still smarter than the programmers at the bank, and the bank's customers both.

From this perspective, it looks to me like information is being diluted, distorted, hijacked, and overridden because the people who find that to be a useful debate tactic are more numerous and persistent than the people who find it to be disruptive, damaging, and unethical. Unfortunately, one maverick disinformer can spread bullshit much farther and faster than one paladin of fact-checking, for the simple reason that if you got burned by a liar, you're going to believe the next guy is also a liar, even if he's on a mission to discredit the liars.

I forget what the theory is called, but there's a model for social altruism that shows how non-altruists, people who take advantage of the trust of others, can convert large social groups into trust abusers and non-trusting folks pretty fast. I believe I read that in a Robert Wright's The Moral Animal. Point being, those people are predators, and they are very destructive to the social fabric, and they are rampant in some cultures right now.

... and it must be true, 'cause I read it in a book made of a lot of words printed on a lot of paper!!

Rufus said...

Yeah, I've said before that the problem with conspiracy theorists is that they basically believe two things:
1. A crime was committed.
2. A wide-reaching conspiracy is covering up that crime.
The problem is that anything you say to disprove 1, they take as proof of 2. The more evidence you provide, the more sophisticated the conspiracy must be. So, you're probably right that you can't talk reason to them.

I also see what you're saying about not personifying the Internet. But how do we countervail these larger real-world problems? I like to think that just teaching courses helps, but I'm not really finding that to be true.

Holly said...

Unfortunately, there is a very high chance that you will never actually know who you helped. I know that the teachers I've had over the years who helped me only rarely knew it. (Something I've actually been thinking about correcting.)

And, yeah, I know. It's muuuuuch harder to make people see the error of their ways than it is to be angry about the evidence. I've had this issue with television since I was a teenager.

Surely there are people out there who are handling this more constructively than (for example) me, who mostly just makes snarky comments about such things.

Rufus said...

It's a real toss up for me because I feel that spending ten minutes correcting someone's errors, outside of class, is ten minutes wasted. I feel like theres's some responsibility to contest misinformation if you know better; but it's honestly probably much better to seek out correct information in your life and just forget about the junk.

The Pagan Temple said...

As many people as there are that surf the net, read blogs and converse on forums, all of them can't be geniuses. It's more like a bunch of people hanging out at their favorite neighborhood bar.

They end up saturated in their own delusions much like a drunk gets soused and starts fights over the same crap every weekend. The only difference is the net-bangers never come down and experience that hangover that might give them at least some perspective.

On the internet, every second of every day is Happy Hour.

Holly said...

I wonder how long before internet junkies get help groups and interventions and so on? Or is that already happening?

Rufus said...

Pagan- That's a funny way of looking at it, and it makes sense. So what do we call the trolls? Would they be full-blown alcoholics? Of course, the advantage of an actual bar is that the really obnoxious guy tends to get his ass kicked and you can't really do that on the Internet.

Holly- I'd imagine we'll have 12-step groups for Internet junkies within a decade. Probably the gamers will go first though.

The Pagan Temple said...

Another advantage of the bar is that you actually get to meet people, and you can only hide your true personna up to a point. Some might call that a disadvantage, as the problem with the net is that most of these people seldom reveal themselves.

You can be who or whatever you want to be on the net, unfortunately, which is a major part of the addiction.

Rufus said...

I guess it can be freeing too. I mean, it's probably easier for someone to play the opposite gender on the net in order to experiment than it would be in real life. But I guess people can feel like they have less responsibility to one another on the net. And, yes, they might well get stuck in their online personas.