Thursday, October 22, 2009

A-swarm with commentaries (blogs vs. the printed word)

Lovely article in the New Yorker by Jane Kramer about Montaigne's essays (maybe I'll finally get around to reading them myself one of these days). Of particular relevance to current debates about the future of pre-internet media is the following quotation from Montaigne: "All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth." This is as good a commentary on the blogosphere as any that are being written today, more than four centuries later. Montaigne: better than Nostradamus! :-)

Much has been written recently about the threat posed to the traditional (print) media by blogs. Michael Massing has a good article in the New York Review of Books. It's not optimistic about the prospect for traditional quality newspapers such as the New York Times: some serious changes are likely. But Massing has more confidence in the survival of investigative journalism than do many other observers. Another intriguing and relatively optimistic analysis is offered by Steven Johnson here.

I hope the optimists are right, and I find Johnson's arguments convincing on the whole. However, neither Massing nor Johnson quite grapples with one of the most problematic issues: how does one distinguish reporting from echoing? Or, more problematically: how will the average consumer know where to look for the former, and how to distinguish it from the latter?

I am less worried about the actual disappearance of sources of quality information than about their drowning in a sea of misinformation. It is my impression, though I hope I'm wrong, that the factual quality of contemporary debate has been deteriorating. It is easier to be confident of a falsehood if one sees it repeated many times, and the web contains almost any falsehood many times over. As Mao already suggested: "A lie, repeated a hundred times, becomes the truth".

A few weeks ago Doonesbury had a funny (scary?) cartoon related to this concern (hope this link still works) discussing American gullibility. In the cartoon, a researcher on conspiracy theories identifies "reasonists" as a tiny group of people, not very influential, who believe in an evidence-based world.

1 comment:

  1. In terms of newspapers going out of business, well, that's the new reality. They're using a hundred year old business model that doesn't apply today. About the preponderance of false information, that is nothing new. People have always distanced themselves from their lies using obscurity. Whether it be someone's blog, a poorly written newsletter or ancient graffiti, so long as people stand to gain by misinforming the public, they will provide misinformation. I'm positive on the effect of the internet on news in today's world. While it is a forum in which misinformation can be spread, it is also a forum that allows people to come forward without much personal risk. I feel we gain far more than we lose.