Thursday, December 27, 2007

Truth and the Internet

In a previous post on "Writing, communication and technology" I commented on the limitations of the Internet (as well as its strengths) and cited the problem of not knowing whether content on websites is sound or indeed truthful. I suggested that the accuracy of any communication is largely untested and unreviewed, that individuals are able to misrepresent themselves more easily to unsuspecting audiences and that anyone can self-publish giving a misplaced sense of their own expertise and knowledge.

My argument has been given support by the "Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus". When researchers asked 25 seventh-grade students (judged to be high-performing as online readers), to check out a website with details about the rare octopus, they all thought the tree octopus was real.

As the local School Superintendent in Middletown (New York) commented, "Knowing truth from fiction on the Internet is a huge problem. Students might be good researchers, but they tend not to scrutinize the information."

I've had my concerns further reinforced in recent days by belatedly realizing that it's difficult to control the content of web-based resources like Wikipedia. When someone recently changed the description of New College to include some not so generous (and inaccurate) comments about our residents, I was led to contemplate how this happens, what you can do about it, and how you stop it from happening again? The answers were: a) anyone can change anything on Wikipedia; b) there isn't much I can do about it but there are processes used to restore content when it has been grossly misrepresented and I can always change it back; c) and, that there isn't much protection against such attacks. Now all the true believers in the Internet will say that this is its great strength. It is so open to all and hence difficult to control, allowing people to search out truth rather than having to be limited to newspapers, television and even books which are more easily controlled by powerful people, organizations or governments. There is some truth in this viewpoint and evidence that the written word can be used to coerce and manipulate. But there are also great dangers in not understanding the limitations of the internet. For there is such a thing as truth and also fiction. Wikipedia at best is founded on the belief that there are various versions of the truth (see Wiki's entry for the Bible), and at worst is influenced by the extreme relativist view that there is no such thing as truth, just individual and group constructions of meaning. Relativism has many forms but broadly teaches that we can only know things in terms of our historical and/or cultural experience and context. In its most extreme form the claim is made that there is no such thing as truth. For a discussion of Relativism explore this link.

While the internet can be useful for communicating truth, readers need to be able to assess information to judge if it is true. As Howard Rheingold points out in a recent newspaper column, "the responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts shifted from the publisher to the reader when the functions of libraries shifted to search engines". Children and adults need to ask themselves more questions of the content they encounter. Who wrote this piece? What is the author's claim to expertise and knowledge in this area? From where does the writer derive his or her sources and how well regarded are such sources? What is the purpose of the writing? What are the underlying assumptions, ideology, values and world view of the writer? How do the claims of this text match the claims of others?

There has never been a time (in my view) when we needed to give greater consideration to the authority of the texts we read and the things we see, for even images can no longer be trusted with the visual effects technology available. The need for critical readers is even more important than ever.

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