A Tale of Two Internets

Barrett Brown

It is extraordinarily likely that some large segment of the general population has vastly increased their knowledge and skepticism and that this phenomenon is almost certain to make itself felt more and more as time goes on.

In my
first column
for this publication,
I made what I hope was the convincing case that the rise of the Internet
has had a net positive effect on the thought processes of those who
use it regularly—comparable, perhaps, to the demonstrable increase
in reasoning ability we see in the classical Greek world upon the adaption
of written language, which itself appears to be something of a prerequisite
for any number of abstract undertakings ranging from political theory
to ethics. Appropriately enough, my argument in that instance was itself
rather abstract, so would like to expand upon it here, as well as provide
concrete evidence which, though anecdotal and thus by itself incapable
of proving that the net effect of the net (sorry) has indeed been positive,
ought to at least convince the reader that (a) certain dynamics now
in play provide for the possibility of a net positive effect
on the thought processes of Internet users, (b) these likewise provide
for the possibility of a public that is more skeptical overall,
and (c) it is extraordinarily likely that some large segment of the
general population has already begun to benefit from these dynamics
in such a way as to have vastly increased their knowledge and skepticism
and that this last phenomenon is almost certain to make itself felt
more and more as time goes on. We will be dealing, then, not with the
subject of cognition per se, but rather with the specific subjects of
knowledge attainment and extent of skepticism.

Such arguments I have made and am
about to expand upon are necessary because there are a number of very
well-informed people in a variety of pertinent fields who have declaimed
my friend the Internet as of late. As noted in my first column, the
publication Edge recently asked a number of relevant professionals
about their thoughts on the subject. Several neuroscientists and others
with similar backgrounds responded with their suspicions, and in some
cases their outright declarations, that the Internet has had a deleterious
effect on the cognitive functioning of its users. A few took the less
critical but far odder stance that Internet use actually has no effect
at all on the cognition of its users. This latter opinion is patently
absurd; even the process of navigating a busy city street has been convincingly demonstrated to have some measurable effect on brain functioning
in general and focus in particular—a negative one, incidentally—and
it would be hard to show how a practice such as weaving through pedestrians
is much more substantial in terms of the effects on its practitioners
than the practice of sitting in front of a computer monitor for hours
at a time each day and taking in, navigating, and creating content ranging
in nature from text to video to interactive mediums of a hundred sorts.

It might also be tempting to ask
those who argue for a negative effect and those who argue for no effect
to argue amongst themselves while those of us who have determined otherwise
go about making our own case—but it would be unnecessary, as there
have been quite a few studies indicating that various computer-related
activities do indeed enhance cognitive performance (as is noted by author
and Wired contributor Jonah Lehrer in the article on city navigation
linked above, incidentally). Still, the issue has yet to be resolved,
and it will probably be years before anything approaching a consensus
is reached by neuroscientists and others with a professional stake in
the question. In the meantime, then, let us finally turn our attention
away from cognition and to what we can indeed show to be the effects
of Internet use on the knowledge of those who use it with at least moderate
responsibility, what potential the Internet possesses in terms of our
ability as skeptics to promote our approach to such knowledge, and what
this all means for the future.

We would not be amiss in beginning
with a quote by one of those experts to whom Edge
put the original question of the Internet’s effect on our thinking
several months ago—one who had a positive take on the overall dynamic,
and who also happens to be noted
skeptic Michael Shermer
:

Thanks to the Internet, for the
first time in my life I feel that I have a chance to compete on a level
playing field. My academic background is embarrassing compared to that
of most successful intellectuals…. Since teaching as an adjunct professor
is no way to make a living (literally), I founded the Skeptics Society
and Skeptic magazine just as the Internet was getting legs in the early-1990s.

Starting with no money, no backers,
and no affiliation with elite institutions, the Internet made it possible
for us to succeed by making knowledge accessible and searchable to me
and my editors and writers on a scale never previously available. The
intellectual playing field was being leveled and the Internet changed
the way I think about the very real possibility of fairness and opportunity
in a world that has for too long been rigged to favor the elite.

Here, Shermer has laid out the basic
case for one superbly positive aspect of the Internet: its role in providing
individuals with vastly increased opportunities to act, to inform, and
to otherwise improve the environment, intellectual or otherwise—and
to do so outside of the structures that have developed somewhat haphazardly
around our major institutions, such as academia and media. Neither the
Skeptics Society nor Skeptic
would have succeeded, Shermer himself notes, without the Internet’s
particular advantages—and certainly both of those institutions have
had some great degree of positive effect on the thinking of a large
number of people. Of course, it is also true that the Internet has given
rise to all manner of deleterious institutions with net negative impacts
on the thinking of individuals, such as Web sites advocating for crystal
healing and e-mail forwards to the effect that Barack Obama is the antichrist
or even Kenyan. I will note, and the reader will perhaps agree, that
the sort of people who are taken in by such things were probably already
lost causes to some degree or another, and that it matters very little
whether such people add some additional piece of falsity to their respective
quivers of nonsense. But I will not let myself off the hook so easily;
instead, I will note that for every false assertion that spreads via
the Internet, the actual truth of the thing is just as readily available
to those who desire the truth—and those who desire something less
than the truth will always get it, the avoidance of cognitive dissonance
being the defining drive of such people.

Again, we cannot know with certainty
the net effect of all this in terms of the distribution of the true
versus that of the false, but it is worth repeating that the Internet
has made available a vast storehouse of reliable information, far more
than had previously been available to anyone who has ever lived. Significantly,
such information is not only available, but quite readily so—and thus
more likely to be accessed.

There is another factor at work here,
one that amplifies the positive potential of the Internet as it currently
exists: the particular Web institutions to which we turn for knowledge—regardless
of whether we are erudite or ignorant—are in the control of relatively
rational individuals who have wisely engineered such entities to serve
as reliable sources of facts. Wikipedia, for example, has been the target
of countless one-liners calling it an unreliable tool for gathering
information. As is so often the case, it is the one-liners and the popular
sentiment expressed thereby that are in error; Nature
published a study in 2005 showing that the online encyclopedia was about
as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. This revelation was not particularly
shocking to those of us who have kept a close eye on such emergent Internet
phenomena as Wikipedia, which operates under a system of rules that
require every assertion to be tied to a verifiable source and which,
unlike printed works, also facilitates links to such sources and thereby
allows users to verify context and otherwise ensure that the facts on
display are indeed facts. Meanwhile, Wikipedia continues to improve
as new experts join the ranks of its editors and scan articles to ensure
accuracy. It is worth putting into perspective the concerns with this
outlet being something that “anyone can edit,” as not everyone does,
of course, and those who do are by definition the sort of people who
would spend their free time editing an online encyclopedia for fun—not
a surefire prevention of foolishness by any means, but one that at least
seems to attract more technocrats than fools, as may be discovered by
an examination of the contributions of the average editor and which
may be confirmed in part by the Nature
study.

The mechanisms and dynamics of the
online world that we find in play within the enterprise of Wikipedia
may of course be found elsewhere as well. At its best, the Internet
outperforms the best of equivalent brick-and-mortar institutions hands
down. And it is the best of the Internet that tends to draw the attention
of those clever enough to make accurate determinations regarding such
things. It is well known among observant people that such outlets as
CNN and The Washington Post
are quite inferior in many respects to the better blogs, for instance;
as evidence of this, I will note that the former provides a largely
uncritical outlet for such people as psychic Sylvia Browne and End Times
advocate Joel Rosenberg, and that the latter has promoted Charles Krauthammer
as some sort of expert on foreign policy, despite the fact—easier
to verify, incidentally, due to the Internet’s archival nature—that
the Pulitzer winner has been demonstrably wrong in his predictions about
every single U.S. military action conducted in the past twelve years,
at the very least. Incidentally, Krauthammer’s liberal counterpart,
Thomas Friedman—another Pulitzer winner who is widely regarded by
the ignorant as some sort of modern polymath—has been similarly wrong
on such a wide range of subjects that I have composed some dozen articles
and a book chapter on this unwholesome subject without expending the
entirety of the examples I have discovered in my perusals of his past
columns, and does not seem to have ever been particularly correct about
anything that is not common knowledge among the educated. Meanwhile,
no one has attempted to make a similar case against those regarded as
among the best of the bloggers, such as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald or
Middle East expert and independent blogger Dr. Juan Cole. In light of
these and other observations, I do not think I would be amiss in thinking
that it is the more orthodox institutions that merit scrutiny, rather
than these more modern institutions, which are still evolving after
existing for a scant decade—particularly since the former are largely
insulated from any reasoned criticism of the sort that might be seen
by their respective audiences, while the latter are each day subject
to that very thing by way of commenters and other bloggers.

Plainly, the best of bloggers are
not representative of the whole of them, no matter how much better they
may be in comparison to the most unjustifiably prominent of columnists,
and this is true of all emergent institutions we find on the Internet.
Still, there are mechanisms by which the reasoned individual may quickly
sift through the nonsense of the many in order to obtain the wise counsel
of the few. This brings us to the example of reddit.com, a Web site at which users may submit various
online materials for the consideration of others, who subsequently upvote
or downvote these entries based on their perceived value. Thus, the
collective usership of this entity promotes to the top those articles
deemed to have merit while strangling in the crib those deemed to have
none. It does not take much imagination to see how such a system can
fail, but experience with this system reveals it to surpass the medium
of the newspaper or television program in its usefulness. As is the
case with Wikipedia, those familiar with the site in the first place
have passed what amounts to a test of their knowledge—in this case,
knowledge of the existence of some information-oriented entity. Such
a test immediately excludes several billion people who are, on the whole,
less knowledgeable than those of us with the benefit of having lived
in the Western world—a Masai tribesman, for all his virtues, does
not understand the theory of evolution and for similar reasons is unlikely
to know of reddit or Wikipedia or even the Internet, and is thus not
likely to show up at Wikipedia to edit an article on germ theory to
include information on the demonic origin of disease. To a lesser extent,
but by way of the same dynamic, the creationist Texan is unlikely to
waste everyone’s time with the product of his more self-enforced brand
of ignorance, not being as likely as a research scientist to learn of
Wikipedia, reddit, or any of the other institutions that have come to
exist as concentrations of erudite individuals with relatively high
levels of education and intellectual curiosity.

Similar to the case of Wikipedia,
then, is the more exciting case of reddit, filled as it is with implications
for the future of human organization and collaboration. On a typical
day some months back, one user submitted an article announcing that
President Obama promised federal financial backing for the opening of
new nuclear power plants. Other users understood the significance of
this story and voted it to the top of the front page where it would
be seen by all. Meanwhile, various individuals posted comments that
would likewise be visible to anyone who cared to see them (and most
users did seem to be so inclined). A few comments questioned the wisdom
of nuclear power, citing the cases of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl;
these were answered promptly by others aware of the actual facts behind
the cases, such as the absolute lack of casualties of the former and
the easily avoided failures that prompted the latter, and who were likewise
quick to point out the widespread death and pollution caused by such
alternatives as coal. Overall, the vast majority of the comments in
question were made in justifiable defense of nuclear power, while the
minority of comments in opposition were quickly answered with a range
of verifiable facts. Compare this result to the impression one might
receive on the subject from one of the usual outlets—in fact, such
a comparison is provided by one of the commenters:

I was watching NBC news tonight
where I saw the announcement of this and, of course, they were showing
pictures of the Chernobyl aftermath. WHY?!

We need media that educates instead
of terrifies…

Indeed we do—and by way of the
emergent dynamics of the Internet, we are starting to get it.

By necessity, this essay has provided
only an overview of the case for the Internet as compared to other mediums.
Certain concepts described herein merit additional commentary, evidence,
and context, and I hope to provide them in subsequent columns. In the
meantime, I will end by noting that, whatever the advantages that the
Internet may provide to our skeptical endeavors even without any direct
action on our behalf, such dynamics also entail vast opportunities in
this regard—opportunities that will be wasted unless we move quickly
to identify and act on them. I provided one opportunity in my last column and have received responses from readers of
the Skeptical Inquirer. Next month, I will announce a more specific,
related opportunity, one with the potential to accomplish a great deal
of what we all would like to see accomplished. I request that the reader
consider the first opportunity and return here for the second.

Barrett Brown

Barrett Brown is the instigator of Project PM, a distributed cartel intended to reduce certain structural deficits that have arisen in the news media. He's a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and True/Slant. His first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, was released in 2007; his second, Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of the American Chattering Class, is set for publication in 2010. Brown can be reached via e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com.