Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Information and Knowledge

Christine Rosen reviews Lee Siegel's "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob," which seems to be almost a jeremiad against the Internet.

Mr. Siegel's animus toward the "electronic mob" and his excesses of tone are forgivable when viewed against the overheated techno-enthusiasm of contemporary culture. By reminding us of Spinoza's insight β€” "All things excellent are both difficult and rare" β€” Mr. Siegel challenges us to consider the great costs to our culture and our humanity when we embrace a technology that instead makes everything merely easy and common.

She writes that, to Siegel, Wikipedia is an example of how "amateur insights offer us enormous convenience and heterogeneity of opinion; but these often come at the expense of reliability and objectivity." That "heterogeneity" is opposed to "objectivity" might be jarring if you're a lifelong believer in democracy. But knowledge is not democratic. If you were to construct a science by committee, and take the American population as the base for achieving heterogeneity, you'd build in an awful lot of Creationism into the final product.

Enthusiasts of Wikipedia claim they are "democratizing knowledge." Mr. Siegel argues that in fact their work is an example of the broad confusion of information with knowledge β€” a confusion that characterizes much of online culture.

"Information is not knowledge." Engrave that in stone, if you have the tools.

I wonder how future historians will deal with this explosion of information. Whole centuries of ancient history are based on a few potshards and faded passages from a single moth-gnawed papyrus. Historians of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 have a large, but not infinite, library of material, from Madison's notes to the "Federalists" to the private letters and diaries of participants to the minutes of the state ratification conventions.

A frustrating amount of the private letters and papers of the Founders still are not in print, however. And of course, not everything important made it on to paper in the first place. But a historian isn't telling you what really happened; he or she is telling you what the surviving record about a time or place adds up to. People often forget this, and a lot of bad history writing forgets it, too.

By the time you get to the mid-20th century, a historian of the Cold War has a huge mass of information to sift through. But probably 90 percent of it can be overlooked. It is not difficult to discover which newspapers and magazines were relevant, which books were influential, which speeches were seminal. Opinion polls begin to become reliable indicators of popular sentiment.

How will historians approach the Iraq War? The amount of words in publication (principally online) about it undoubtedly is greater than that for any single incident in human history. In an average 2 minutes on the Internet probably more words are published about the fighting in Iraq than are contained in all of Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides.

How will they determine what matters? Simply by the blogospheric mass of the site? So all anti-war positions will be represented by MyDD and Daily Kos? All supporting positions will boil down to NRO and LGF? How will they sift through the millions of milblogger posts to get a sense of the soldier's war? There's simply too much information to cram into one brain and grind out the objective knowledge.