Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Internet Promotes the Free Trade in Ideas. But at What Price?

Every new technology has its detractors. Change disrupts routines; it is the enemy of the familiar, and we all prefer the familiar to the strange.

Sometimes change disrupts the order of society itself. The arrival of the internet has circumscribed the power, prestige, and jobs of many of those who have worked in the media. It has also threatened the authority of teachers. Beyond that the internet has threatened those who want to use their positions in the media to control the minds of their fellow citizens.

These three groups are not the same. And they should not be lumped together.

Writing effectively, whether in a book or a magazine article, does not come naturally. At least it doesn't to me. A good editor will sharpen your concept, improve your prose style, and guide you toward a more organized and felicitous presentation of whatever you want to say. Many times an editor will help you to discover exactly what it is that you want to say.

A good publisher will ensure that your work comes to the attention of the largest number of potential readers. And a good reviewer will offer potential readers a capsule summary of your work, along with a fair estimation of its value.

At least, that is the way it is supposed to work. I have been fortunate enough to have worked with great editors, so I can attest that sometimes it does work that way.

But it does not work that way automatically. Publishing can only work at its best when its practitioners have a liberal and open mind, and when they respect the work of their authors and the sensibilities of their readers. This is not always the case, but sometimes, and hopefully, it often is.

And yet, publishing is a business, and lately, under attack by the internet, where free really does mean free, the business model has become less and less lucrative. And this has meant more marketing-driven works, more celebrity works, and less of the kind of serious books whose absence people bemoan but that they don't buy.

Now we have something new, called self-publishing, which used to be called vanity publishing, and the blogosphere. And let's not forget Facebook and Twitter. Through these internet-driven media more and more people can communicate whatever, whenever, wherever, and with whomever they wish.

The second group threatened by the internet is the teaching profession. Not the entirety of the teaching profession but those educators who see themselves less as educators, and more as indoctrinators. Such teachers want to exercise strict control over students' access to ideas and information, because they want to control student minds.

Their means of control is obviously the grading system. Whether they realize it or not, grades can be used as an instrument of power and control. Students may or may not be aware of it, but if they believe that they will receive poorer grades for taking politically incorrect positions, they will be induced to think the way their teachers want them to think.

The same impulse to establish a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas, is also manifest in more mainstream media. I will not belabor the point, but the mainstream media tends to think the same way and to present information the same way, and thus to exercise a measure of control over the minds of their consumers. The most egregious recent example is the media's failure to question Barack Obama about his credentials, his qualifications, his views, and his past associations. To its eternal discredit the media gave Obama a pass, and thus transformed itself from reporter into propagandist.

People who have dedicated themselves to fighting the culture wars feel that it is their moral duty to control information, to control access to opinion, and to control minds. The internet is their nightmare.

But, Clay Shirky suggests in the Wall Street Journal, the wild west of the internet seems to be the enemy of peer reviewed journal articles. After all, peer review provides something of a guarantee of quality and veracity. Don't we lose this when everyone can offer an opinion, or even his own version of the facts. Link here.

Let's make a couple of important distinctions. When peer reviewed articles appear in scientific journals, that means that fellow scientists have checked the data and the experimental method. They are willing to guarantee the correctness of the procedures and the results. When you are dealing with experimental science this is the right and proper way to go about things.

Science deals in facts, and very few of us have the means to check out experimentally-derived facts.

Even there it is possible to game the system. Recent debates about the validity of climate science have been attacked because major climate scientists seem to have figured out ways to game the system, to ensure that articles are sent for peer review to like-thinking colleagues, and to make it nearly impossible for detractors to receive funding for their research.

The same is more true in the humanities. The fever swamp of political correctness has found the humanities to be the most congenial hothouse. In principle, articles and books in the humanities have been cleared by objective peers, but, in many cases the peers in question do not believe in objective judgement. They are so committed to their ideology that they judge the work of others on the basis of whether or not it furthers their cause.

It does not, of course, need to be this way. I recall an old anecdote about England's Cambridge University. When Bertrand Russell was asked whether or not he would recommend Ludwig Wittgenstein for a fellowship, Russell declared, as I recall, that Wittgenstein's work might well prove that he, Russell, had been wrong about basic issues, but, nonetheless, this was no reason to deny a great philosopher a fellowship.

I do not know how often that happens today, but I hope it happens more than I think it does.

All of this to say that the internet has threatened the monopoly of those who would control access to fact and opinion, but it has also opened the media to what Glenn Reynolds called "an army of Davids." The internet has created the freest marketplace of ideas that has ever existed. The fact that it is subject to abuse merely suggests that human beings are participating in it. All previous media were subject to abuse. They are probably being abused as we speak. When people rail against the blogosphere they conveniently forget the problems that inhere in the old media.

As it happens, the products of the new media are of uneven quality. As Clay Shirky writes: "The bulk of publicly available media is created by people who understand little of the professional standards and practices for media. Instead, these amateurs produce endless streams of mediocrity, eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmed predictions of incipient chaos and intellectual collapse."

As it happens, Shirky is being somewhat ironic here. One person's mediocrity spurs another person's insight. Shirky is actually arguing that this is what always happens when a new media arrives on the scene. When the printing press was invented the increasingly easy availability of written texts revolutionized European intellectual life, by breaking the Catholic Church's control over access to the Bible, and by launching a political culture based on inexpensive and easily available newspapers and pamphlets.

Eventually, Shirky adds, the free market worked to sort it all out. The net effect was: "increasing, rather than decreasing the intellectual range and output of society."

To fear the free and open expression of information is to fear democracy itself. Often enough, those who want to exercise the most strict control over information are most afraid of having to hear the voice of the people.

Shirky makes another very important point. Today the internet allows more and more people to participate in public debate. Whether by blogging themselves or by writing comments on the blogs of others, whether by writing on their Facebook page or sending their comments to their Facebook friends, or even Tweeting, people today have become ever more active participants in the political and cultural debate.

Isn't that intrinsically desirable in a democratic nation?

I would add one point. When you write things down, and especially when you write things for public consumption, the act itself tends to clarify your thought, to calm down your enthusiasm, even to the point, as most writers know only too well, of seeming to produce new ideas in the very act of writing down the old ideas.

Writing and reading are educational, especially because they encourage participation. Isn't it better to have people actively participating in the political discussion than merely being passive consumers of the information that a selected elite has decided to put out there?

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