Sunday, February 25, 2007

The power of the web

Writers as formidably intelligent as Oliver Kamm and Jeremy Stangroom must be aware that, when they criticise blogging, the fact that they are both bloggers is a potential source of irony. Perhaps, as writers with other, more traditional, outlets they feel validated as commentators in a way that those who merely blog are not.

Stangroom (blog - Butterflies and Wheels) took part in an online debate with Chris Bertram (blog - Crooked Timber) at The Philosopher's Magazine website, whereas Kamm (blog) - who links to this TPM exchange - has written three posts denigrating different aspects not just of blogging, but also of the web (which he calls the "internet") more generally. His posts can be found, in chronological order, here, here and here.

Stangford's case is essentially that blogs encourage "groupthink":

Blogging breeds entrenched positions; there is no editorial requirement for balance.
If you read the Guardian newspaper, you'll find that most of the time it pursues what it sees – erroneously – as being a liberal-left agenda. But just occasionally it'll throw up a surprise; it'll print something which departs from its editorial line. But you can read Crooked Timber, or The Leiter Reports, or Normblog, or Conservative Commentary, and, on particular issues, you'll never be surprised; you'll know, in advance, the line which will be taken.
and the quote Kamm echoes:
My argument is that when a whole medium is characterised by entrenched positions then you tend to get heat not light.
Given the enormous difference in daily output between The Guardian and the average blog, in the numbers of contributors and the resources committed, the suggestion that it is only "occasionally" that The Guardian throws up a surprise is telling, and damning. This is not the point Stangford was trying to make, but it is true: readers of The Guardian seek, and find, entrenched positions that match their own preconceptions - just like readers of blogs (often the same people). Moreover, from what I have seen, many people use aggregators (readers) to assemble a more eclectic and contradictory reading list than would ever have been found in the pages of one given newspaper, or indeed in the totality of available newsprint. There are no barriers, either of subject or geography, in the blogosphere. Thus, in the real world where people actually read more than one blog, greater, not lesser, variety is both possible and commonplace.

In Kamm's first piece, he argues that:
So far from being "democratic and egalitarian", the proliferation of political blogs narrows the range of opinion presented in the public square, to the extent that blogs are taken seriously as an intermediary for debate.
The supposed conversation that blogging gives rise to is more like an echo chamber. When it's then diverted towards particular targets, the consequences are horrifying. Ms Alibhai-Brown referred in her comments [during a discussion about blogging] to the overwhelmingly abusive character of the emails she receives from her journalism. You can see further evidence on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" site, where the aim of drawing readers into a conversation has clearly not been realised.
But surely it is possible that this aim has been realised, and we're seeing the truth about the polarisation of political culture that already existed, but lacked this particular channel through which it could be made public. The divisions made visible through opposing demonstrations and the strikes and strike-breaking of the 1970s, the venom of feminists, socialists and Young Tories, were at least as strong as the divisions made visible through blog comments. In fact, the most politically polarised period of my lifetime was Mrs Thatcher's administration. Much heat, and precious little light, was apparent at that time and we did not need the web to see it. There was little magisterial and mutually respectful debate.

Kamm concludes:
Blogging is a fact of political life, and we have to get used to it. But deliberative democracy doesn't work that way.
I'm afraid that, in reality, blogs reflect exactly the way democracy works, now and in the past. F.E. Smith might have used the more elegant English of his day, but was no less caustic than most political bloggers. Most people have deeply entrenched views and are not interested in questioning them. They frequently claim moral superiority for their opinions and will not, on that ground alone, open their minds to change; nor will they seek, or hear if they encounter, opposing viewpoints. And it has ever been so.

In his second piece, Kamm points to the almost lunatic figure of Michael Meacher, who has become a 9/11 conspiracy theorist:
When he showed his sources, they turned out to be print-outs from crank conspiracist web sites and nothing else; nor was this conspiracy theory the only one whose merits he presented.
One of the reasons I am sceptical of the Internet [he means the web] (and hostile to blogging) as a conduit for information and argument is that its errors are not independent; it is the ideal medium for the propagation of malign falsehood couched with bogus authority in pseudoscientific language.
This is by way of contrast to the traditional media which, according to a study he quotes, benefits from:
"an entrenched professional community that systematically 'repairs' its hegemonic journalistic paradigm by discrediting rogue journalists and rogue media conduits as anomalies"
This is not sustainable as an argument - although (from the second of those links) it's reassuring that The Independent believes the culture of the Pirwi people of Mexico to be so. In fact, though not all bloggers observe this, it has become good blog practice to point out your own mistakes prominently if they have been made known to you. Open, and even moderated, comments sections permit opposing arguments to be put in a way that was entirely alien to more traditional media until very recently, and that as a consequence of the influence of the web in general and of blogging in particular.

This argument is really one in favour of a sort of self-perpetuating academy - The Fourth Estate - correcting itself in its own time and in its own way, with the rest of the world entirely excluded even from an observation of the process. It is an argument for the hegemony of received opinion.

And, as Kamm himself points out with his example of the "Who was the real Shakespeare" lunacy, conspiracy theories predate the internet. I am not aware of any reason to imagine they have become more prominent in the past decade or so.

However, the suggestion that the web has permitted more unusual, fringe ideas to be propogated directly contradicts the earlier assertion that blogs have "narrowed" debate.

Kamm's third piece was an attack on Wikipedia. This contained a breathtaking piece of arrogance:
there is a disproportionate stress on pop culture and technology to the exclusion of genuine fields of knowledge
Kamm's field is not technology: as I have - deliberately pedantically - pointed out, he does not understand the distinction between the internet - a network of computer networks (internetwork) that can be used for all kinds of things, email, gopher, ssh, telnet and so on - and the web, which is one of those technologies that can, but need not necessarily, use the internet for transport. Wikipedia is an excellent source of information for technological and scientific subjects, but Kamm quotes a former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, who wrote:
truth – whatever definition of that word you may subscribe to – is not democratically determined. And another is that talent, whether for soccer or for exposition, is not equally distributed across the population
Leaving aside this writer's obvious vested interest in the previous order, and acknowledging Kamm's examples of egregious error in Wikipedia articles with a political aspect, we can look to the journal Nature for an assessment of Wikipedia, and a comparison with the Britannica, that has the merit of having actually been researched:
In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team.

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
The most notable part of this is the error count from Britannica. Taking a single point of reference for a subject is always inadvisable. Wikipedia is an experiment. The internet was not designed with the web in mind; the web was not designed with Wikipedia in mind. We are seeing technology evolve, in all three cases. But never has more information been available for so many, and Mr Kamm is in danger of sounding like someone who fears the invention of the printing press.

There is, however, a genuine problem with these electronic data systems: they are like the wall in Animal Farm. Electronic resources can be altered. The BBC is notorious for "stealth edits", whereby once an error (invariably giving a predictable and erroneous slant to a news story) has been pointed out by others (often bloggers), they edit rather than update the online article, so that so far as anyone encountering the page in the future is concerned it has always said what it says now. Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University has been almost a lone voice in pointing out these dangers:
Since about the middle of 2000, there has been an explosion of interest in peer-to-peer networking - the business of building useful systems out of large numbers of intermittently connected machines, with virtual infrastructures that are tailored to the application. One of the seminal papers in the field was The Eternity Service, which I presented at Pragocrypt 96. I had been alarmed by the Scientologists' success at closing down the penet remailer in Finland, and had been personally threatened by bank lawyers who wanted to suppress knowledge of the vulnerabilities of ATM systems (see here for a later incident). This taught me that electronic publications can be easy for the rich and the ruthless to suppress. They are usually kept on just a few servers, whose owners can be sued or coerced. To me, this seemed uncomfortably like books in the Dark Ages: the modern era only started once the printing press enabled seditious thoughts to be spread too widely to ban. The Eternity Service was conceived as a means of putting electronic documents as far outwith the censor's grasp as possible. (The concern that motivated me has since materialised; a UK court judgment has found that a newspaper's online archives can be altered by order of a court to remove a libel.)
(My emphasis) This means that a court has seen fit to order not that something published was libellous, but rather that it never was published at all, and the record has been changed to show that. Winston Smith, in 1984, had a more laborious task when it came to altering the past. Offending newspapers had to be reprinted.

I highlighted the following in the preceding quote:
the modern era only started once the printing press enabled seditious thoughts to be spread too widely to ban
The printing presses also produced, for example, the anti-Catholic pamphlets that caused such mischief in the seventeenth century. There are obvious parallels for these pamphlets today, in the form og blogs, forums and websites, and they are indeed spreading mischief.

But the enabling power that saw the start of the modern world that I, Kamm and Stangroom value so highly is there too. Governments - and clerics - are even less able to suppress information than they were even twenty years ago. And in that, there is more cause for optimism than pessimism.

No comments: