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Perspective on knowledge: The good, the bad, the networked

This article appears in the issue May/June 2018 [Volume 27, Issue 3]
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If there were a newspaper that covered nothing but the Internet, its headline every day would be “This Just In: The Internet Stinks.”

Or so it seems from how the media cover the Net. Even the bubble I share with Internet researchers and online social justice activists has become focused on the negative side of the Net. It needs to be addressed. Urgently. Although many of these folks work on projects that do good using the Net, I think most would agree that their perception of the Net, along with the general public’s, is far darker than it was even just a few years ago.

Over the past 10 years, when the valuation of the Net started to flip from promise to threat, the complaints have shifted. These days we hear less about online bullying and more about institutional problems: fake news, Russian bots, algorithmic bias, systemic breaches of trust and data.

Noise and anonymity

We’d be worse than fools to ignore these ills. They’re real. Worse, they’re directly connected to the structure of the Net itself. The Net gives everyone a voice, so there’s noise. It provides a shield of anonymity, so people feel unaccountable. The Net not only routes around censorship, it also routes around authority and genuine expertise, making falsehoods as easy to post and find as the truth. That’s what you get when you let everyone speak and connect.

But maybe it’s time to remember just three ways the Internet has improved human knowledge so deeply that we now take these changes for granted.

First, remember when you used to read a printed newspaper? In fact, so many of us did that there are photos of subways cars filled with people all with their noses stuck in their newspapers the way we now mockingly post photos of everyone looking down at their cell phones.

Back in the days of printed newspapers, you would occasionally come across some bit of news that was really interesting to you. If you wanted to know more you would ... you would ... actually, there was usually nothing you could do but wait, hoping that tomorrow the editors might see fit to tell you some more.

Now the ease with which we can find information and follow its links has liberated us to be so much more curious, for there is no end to what we can know.

Second, remember when periodicals included reader comments? Those comments, carefully filtered by the editors, came out in the edition after the one they were commenting on, which also meant there was no commenting on other people’s comments.

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