Monday, January 28, 2008

Cream Rises to the Top, Even on the Internet

January 27, 2008

Cream Rises to the Top, Even on the Internet

By Thomas Lifson

In the Dark Ages, information was a rare and precious commodity. Books were copied by hand, and were expensive, rare, and unavailable to most people, who could not, in any event, read them, as literacy was limited largely to the nobility and clergy. Most book publication was in the hands of religious orders, whose scribes produced many beautiful examples of illuminated manuscripts, enhancing the beauty of the Scriptures and other sacred works with exquisite artistic flair.

Once Johannes Gutenberg's infernal invention moved beyond publication of the Bible and fell into the Wrong Hands, the average quality of books was never again so high in the West. All sorts of mischief resulted, upsetting the political, religious, and social order. Martin Luther's 95 Theses, leading to a long, fierce and deadly religious war, were an early sign of the trouble to come. With religious authorities no longer controlling the flow of published information, the slippery slope downward was inevitable, leading to romance novels, pornography, and It Takes A Village receiving widespread circulation.

So it is with internet. While Lawrence Murray offers American Thinker readers a perceptive critique of many serious problems accompanying the arrival of the internet, and while we should strive to minimize the downside he persuasively identifies, I am thrilled that I have lived to see the arrival of the internet, and have been privileged to launch a publishing venture that never would have been possible in the era of print and centralized control of broadcasting. The tender mercies of the elites in control of major newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters are insufficient to ensure a balanced and accurate supply of information reaching those who care about politics, art, culture, and many other expressions of the human intellect and soul.

When ordinary people are in charge of making decisions over their own lives, it is inevitable that many of their choices over what to do, what to read and think, and how to take care of themselves, will displease others who reckon themselves better educated, more aware, and more capable of infusing those choices with wisdom. And when those same ordinary people are able to publish their own thoughts for the world to see, a lot of what they produce will be dross. This is both the peril and glory of a mass culture of culture producers. As seen on YouTube, where terrible dreck exists, but where rising geniuses get access to the world's eyeballs.

The nearly ubiquitous phenomenon of Wikipedia illustrates well the tradeoff we make by accepting the internet. Yes, it is true as Murray avers, that Wikipedia entries can include nonsense and worse. But a self-correcting mechanism exists, and is put to good use: readers and the public are able to dispute incorrect information. When links to additional information are included, readers can search for the truth themselves. For all faults, Wikipedia has enabled me to gather information effortlessly, and as a result on a daily basis I have informed myself of a far broader range of subjects than was possible two decades ago.

Yes, nonsense can become amplified by the arrival of Google and other search engines. But it does not take much life experience before internet users grasp the concept that mere arrival of information on a computer screen does not guarantee reliability. Perhaps there is a higher percentage of nonsense published on the internet than in books, but there have been some pretty awful nonsense books published with great harm resulting (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kampf, for instance). At least counter-arguments can be rapidly produced and distributed on the internet when a comparably evil work is produced on the web.

Movies were regarded as cheapening the art of stage performance. Recorded music threatened live performers, as did radio. Television took less imagination than radio and went for the lowest common denominator. Every advance in the technology of communications is denounced as vulgarizing earlier artistic forms. And the younger generation's fecklessness has troubled their elders since the dawn of civilization. The complaints Lawrence Murray offers are hardly new or unique to the internet.

The web is still in its infancy. The reason I am optimistic that it will lead to a better (though far from perfect) culture and society is that the very accessibility ensuring vast quantities of low quality information also serves to sort out the good from the bad. Critical voices have access to the web, too. And they can be virally distributed. You can't suppress dissent, and leaving a reasonable argument unanswered becomes a public act with archives a hyperlink away.

Those of us who publish on the internet hear almost instantaneously from critics when a typo, , much less a questionable assertion is published. Those who refuse to be responsive to such critics quickly lose their reputation for quality and reliability, for the critics have full access to the world's eyes and ears.

If anything, skepticism is on the rise because critics are able to find an audience for their questions. We saw how this worked in Rathergate. Certainly Dan Rather and his colleagues at CBS News were appalled at being questioned over the reliability of a docment on which their report was based. To them, the internet seemed pernicious indeed, But in the end, the truth will out, and these days it runs at the speed of light.

It makes great sense to be concerned about the tradeoffs we face with the arrival of the internet. But those who believe in the marketplace of ideas as a sorting mechanism for discerning Truth have nothing to fear.

Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.

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