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Perspective on knowledge: The news is no more

This article appears in the issue May 2017, [Volume 26, Issue 5]


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By now I assume we’re all tired not only of hearing fake news, but also of hearing about fake news. We’ve seen how it arises and spreads due to flaws in the structure of the Internet. We’ve heard lots of proposals for how to fix the problem, most of them implausible. We’ve gotten used to the conclusion, uttered with a sigh, that the Internet has irredeemably destroyed journalism and probably democracy.

I, of course, do not have a solution to any of this. And I won’t deny that the Internet has damaged journalism, although it’s also positively affected it. I join in our collective sigh of resignation if not of despair.

But I think the bigger point is that the Net has disrupted not only journalism, but the nature and very idea of the news itself. In fact, the Internet is doing to knowledge much of what it has done to news.

News is a type of information. Indeed, it’s one of the types closest to our pre-computer use of the word: Information was, and is, something you are about to learn. If a messenger approaches the king and says, “I have some information, sir,” he better follow it up with something like “The enemy is on the march!” and not, “The sun rises in the east!”

But with the invention of newspapers, and then broadcast news, news became The News, the aggregate of stories worth reporting on, at least until the next issue. The criteria of worthiness can be endlessly debated and are, in fact, debated every day at editorial meetings, but not everything will pass the test. The News is the result of expert filtering.

Curation needs curators

The idea of The News is an artifact of the limitations of publishing and broadcasting. Both of those are centralized mechanisms that are highly constrained in how much they can put out. That’s why we have to carve out a chunk of information and call it The News.

Curation requires curators. We trust them to provide us with what we need, meaning that The News is what someone else has decided is important for us to know. The same thing happens with knowledge: Publishers of books and journals decide what deserves to see print.

We also have trusted those curators to ensure that stories and books are reliable. Implicit in the idea of The News is the belief that it’s reliable, even if imperfectly. The same holds for knowledge.

Take away any of those characteristics, much less all of them, and The News looks like an arbitrary set of information. The Net is challenging them all.

The idea that there is some discernible set of information that matters is problematic, for what matters to each of us is different, and the overlaps are less obvious than the one-to-many nature of newspapers and radio and TV makes obvious. The official News contains a tiny slice of the world’s new developments but misses much of what matters to me: what happens in my local community, in the communities where my friends and relatives live, or in the many niche domains I care about, from JavaScript to the history of philosophy to indie games. Plus, The News contains lots of information perhaps I should care about but that I actually don’t.

Limitation no longer

In short, we have the concept of The News because our media were so limited that we had to come up with a manageable set of information to present and make it sound like a category that has some meaning other than “This is what fit into our paper today.” Take away that limitation and The News goes with it.

We can say exactly the same about the invention of the concept of knowledge: We had to decide which stuff to include in our limited set of books, and scrolls before that. But that limitation has gone away.

There is a difference, though. While the only distinction between The News and what isn’t news is that the news media covers one and not the other, there’s still a strong distinction between what’s knowledge and what isn’t. Knowledge isn’t simply what makes it past the curators. Knowledge is what’s true, and it’s important to keep that distinction.

No argument from me … except it’s also important to remember that the circle around what’s true isn’t as bright a line as we’d like. Nothing is certain, so knowledge is always that which we believe to have been established sufficiently. And with that last word, the arguments begin, just as they do in the editorial meetings arguing about what’s news. It is healthy for the news industry to come to grips with the fact that The News was a construction necessitated by limitations that we no longer suffer from. It is likewise healthy to recognize that knowledge itself is undergoing the same sort of change. 

 


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