Is the internet good?

December 3rd, 2011

Some debate whether the abundance of information on the internet may not be a positive:

With so much data and so many voices, we each have knowledge formerly hard-won by decades of specialization. With some new fact or temptation perpetually beckoning, we may be the superficial avatars of an A.D.D. culture.

Or, is it the structure of the Internet that is bad?

David Weinberger, one of the earliest and most perceptive analysts of the Internet, thinks we are looking at the wrong thing. It is not the content itself, but the structure of the Internet, that is the important thing. At least, as far as the destruction of a millennia-long human project is concerned. . . .

Mr. Weinberger’s new book, called “Too Big to Know,” will be published in January. He gave a lecture with the same name last Wednesday at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, touching on the book’s main themes. Chief among them was the destruction of our institutions of knowledge and culture.

“Newspapers, encyclopedias, they are just gone, at the touch of a hyperlink,” Mr. Weinberger said. The institutions of “education and politics – they’ll just shatter. How did they get to be so fragile?” With the pained glee of a scientist discovering very bad news, he added, “knowledge for my generation was at the center of the human quest. It is going the way of the recording industry. It is a term that won’t survive the generation.”

This seems right. My goal is not the acquisition of knowledge. I can google anything instantly. My goal is to figure out how to improve the world with this knowledge.

This discussion reads out of Borges’ The Library of Babel:

The abundance problem of the Web, Mr. Weinberger said, is really an old one. The Roman philosopher Seneca talked about “too many books” (echoing Ecclesiastes 12:12, “of making many books there is no end.”) The issue nowadays is to some extent the need for good filters, pushing away information after centuries of seeking it.

Weinberger writes further about destructions of institutions:

But more important where the destruction of the institutions that supposedly steward the development of knowledge is concerned, he said, is the Web’s ever-changing structure of links, which undermines hierarchical analysis by allowing everyone to see and contribute different points of view. “In a highly-connected medium we would expect knowledge to change. And it does,” he said, “the knowledge lives in webs and networks as it has in books.”

This mitigates the role of things like peer-review (gasp!):

While that can lead to speedy analysis, Mr. Weinberger said, it also means we live in a world of continual change and situational thinking. Every understanding is open to change, a kind of point of view that can be undermined by a non-expert with a persuasive argument. Even top researchers now acknowledge this, he noted: Recent claims that neutrinos travel faster than light are both posted and debated in places like, without the traditional process of peer-review. “It did not respect professional credentials,” the Harvard researcher said.

The notion of the filters is one of the problems that Sunstein wrote about in

See only what you want to see, hear only what you want to hear, read only what you want to read. In cyberspace, we already have the ability to filter out everything but what we wish to see, hear, and read. Tomorrow, our power to filter promises to increase exponentially. With the advent of the Daily Me, you see only the sports highlights that concern your teams, read about only the issues that interest you, encounter in the op-ed pages only the opinions with which you agree. In all of the applause for this remarkable ascendance of personalized information, Cass Sunstein asks the questions, Is it good for democracy? Is it healthy for the republic? What does this mean for freedom of speech? exposes the drawbacks of egocentric Internet use, while showing us how to approach the Internet as responsible citizens, not just concerned consumers. Democracy, Sunstein maintains, depends on shared experiences and requires citizens to be exposed to topics and ideas that they would not have chosen in advance. Newspapers and broadcasters helped create a shared culture, but as their role diminishes and the customization of our communications universe increases, society is in danger of fragmenting, shared communities in danger of dissolving. In their place will arise only louder and ever more extreme echoes of our own voices, our own opinions.

In evaluating the consequences of new communications technologies for democracy and free speech, Sunstein argues the question is not whether to regulate the Net (it’s already regulated), but how; proves that freedom of speech is not an absolute; and underscores the enormous potential of the Internet to promote freedom as well as its potential to promote “cybercascades” of like-minded opinions that foster and enflame hate groups. The book ends by suggesting a range of potential reforms to correct current misconceptions and to improve deliberative democracy and the health of the American republic.