Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Knowledge and Human Destiny

John Brockman is doing his annual question on The Edge: How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? As usual, the digerati have lots of surprising and interesting responses. I like this bit from Clay Shirky's response:
... printing was a necessary but not sufficient input to the scientific revolution. The Invisible College, the group of natural philosophers who drove the original revolution in chemistry in the mid-1600s, were strongly critical of the alchemists, their intellectual forebears, who for centuries had made only fitful progress. By contrast, the Invisible College put chemistry on a sound scientific footing in a matter of a couple of decades, one of the most important intellectual transitions in the history of science. In the 1600s, though, a chemist and an alchemist used the same tools and had access to the same background. What did the Invisible College have that the alchemists didn't?

They had a culture of sharing. The problem with the alchemists had wasn't that they failed to turn lead into gold; the problem was that they failed uninformatively. Alchemists were obscurantists, recording their work by hand and rarely showing it to anyone but disciples. In contrast, members of the Invisible College shared their work, describing and disputing their methods and conclusions so that they all might benefit from both successes and failures, and build on each other's work.

The chemists were, to use Richard Foreman's phrase, "pancake people". They abandoned the spiritual depths of alchemy for a continual and continually incomplete grappling with what was real, a task so daunting that no one person could take it on alone. Though as schoolchildren, the history of science we learn is often marked by the trope of the lone genius, science has always been a networked operation.

In this we can see a precursor to what's possible for us today. Just as the Invisible College didn't just use the printing press as raw capability, but created a culture that used the press to support the transparency and argumentation science relies on, we have the same opportunity.
I like this because I've always felt there is something earth shatteringly special about collaboration. Our best governments are democratic. Our best tool for creating knowledge is the scientific method with its foundation of collaborative inquiry. Our best economies are built on open market mechanisms. We step into the future when we embrace new ideas and find ways to exchange collaboratively.

The darkest hours of humanity have been in totalitarian times under mad rulers who dictate all aspects of your life. The evil in religion lies in a fundamentalism that raises "the Word" or "the Prophet" above the community.

The Internet is an invention that has great promise because it extends our ability to collaborate. But it also carries a dark side since it is a tool that can be used by fanatical groups to monitor and control, to dictate and pollute. Let's hope that the forces of Good/Light/Collaboration prevail over the forces of Evil/Darkness/Control.

Richard Dawkins echoes this assessment in his response to the question:
...there is the perennial problem of sorting out true information from false. Fast search engines tempt us to see the entire Web as a gigantic encyclopaedia, while forgetting that traditional encyclopaedias were rigorously edited and their entries authored by chosen experts. Having said that, I am repeatedly astounded by how good Wikipedia can be. I calibrate Wikipedia by looking up the few things I really do know about (and may indeed have written the entry for in traditional encyclopaedias) say 'Evolution' or 'Natural Selection'. I am so impressed by these calibratory forays that I go, with some confidence, to other entries where I lack first-hand knowledge (which was why I felt able to quote Wikipedia's definition of the Web, above). No doubt mistakes creep in, or are even maliciously inserted, but the half-life of a mistake, before the natural correction mechanism kills it, is encouragingly short. Nevertheless, the fact that the Wiki concept works, even if only in some areas such as science, flies so flagrantly in the face of all my prior pessimism, that I am tempted to see it as a metaphor for all that deserves optimism about the World Wide Web.

Optimistic we may be, but there is a lot of rubbish on the Web, more than in printed books, perhaps because they cost more to produce (and, alas, there's plenty of rubbish there too). But the speed and ubiquity of the Internet actually helps us to be on our critical guard. If a report on one site sounds implausible (or too plausible to be true) you can quickly check it on several more. Urban legends and other viral memes are helpfully catalogued on various sites. When we receive one of those panicky warnings (often attributed to Microsoft or Symantec) about a dangerous computer virus, we do not spam it to our entire address book but instead Google a key phrase from the warning itself. It usually turns out to be, say, "Hoax Number 76", its history and geography meticulously tracked.


Finally, there may be political implications. Apartheid South Africa tried to suppress opposition by banning television, and eventually had to give up. It will be more difficult to ban the Internet. Theocratic or otherwise malign regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia today, may find it increasingly hard to bamboozle their citizens with their evil nonsense. Whether, on balance, the Internet benefits the oppressed more than the oppressor is controversial, and at present may vary from region to region (see, for example, the exchange between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky in Prospect, Nov-Dec 2009).

It is said that Twitter is playing an important part in the current unrest in Iran, and latest news from that faith-pit encourages the view that the trend will be towards a net positive effect of the Internet on political liberty. We can at least hope that the faster, more ubiquitous and above all cheaper Internet of the future may hasten the long-awaited downfall of Ayatollahs, Mullahs, Popes, Televangelists, and all who wield power through the control (whether cynical or sincere) of gullible minds. Perhaps Tim Berners-Lee will one day earn the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Dawkins reminds us that freedoms carry responsibilities. If you can now transparently access material from many sources, you now have the responsibility to be more critical of facts.

In the old world most people thought that if something was printed in a book, it had to be true. They thought that if the government told you something, it had to be true. They thought that if your religion inculcated something, it had to be true. But we now know in the more open, democratic, accessible "ideas world" of today, you have a responsibility to check "facts" to be wary of manipulations, of 'spin', of propaganda. We have more freedom, but we have more responsibility.

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