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The silence of the Web

I'm going to tell you something I'm not proud of. But that's exactly why I'm telling you. Here goes: I sort of kind of believe that President Bush was wired with a radio receiver during that first debate. I have zero interest in convincing anyone of that, mainly because I'm not convinced of it myself. In fact, when I realized that that was what I (sort of) believe, I surprised myself. How did I come to such a conclusion? The answer I think tells us something about how knowledge and authority are changing.

I'm a reasonably reasonable person. I don't believe aliens killed JFK or that you can hear messages if you play songs backward. But, as you may have guessed from previous columns about the Dean campaign, I'm not much of an admirer of President Bush. So, when I read in the online magazine Salon that one of the photos of Bush at the first debate showed a suspiciously rectangular object under his coat between his shoulder blades, I was amused. Salon picked this up from a Weblog that had noticed it. I'm a Weblogger, so I blogged the suspicion, but I said I was passing it along as a "delightfully irresponsible rumor." Who doesn't like a rumor, especially when it's marked as such?

I went to the Weblog that Salon cited and poked around. It was impressive. Anyone can write a Weblog, but this person seemed to know a lot about security and radio transmitters. I checked the blogger's home page and the list of previously published technical articles that seemed way too elaborate for a hoax. Of course, even if it weren't a hoax site, the blogger could be a lunatic, writing boxcars of gibberish. Nevertheless, that list of articles was some evidence that the site was at least semi-reliable.

Then someone posted a comment on my site pointing to a site that had 28 photos of Bush from the back, supposedly taken straight from the network video feed. This helped to allay my concerns that the original photo I'd seen was doctored. It seemed less likely that someone would bother PhotoShopping all 28. Besides, Webloggers are getting pretty good at detecting faked-up documents and photos ... just ask Dan Rather.

So, I poked around some more on the Web. I found someone who seemed to know a fair bit about the White House's use of radio transmitters, and had photos of ones with itty-bitty ear pieces. So, unless that was a hoax, such things exist. Then there was some discussion on the Web of a couple of previous times that the mainstream media have overheard audio prompts for President Bush coming over a radio frequency. Those reports were at least secondhand, so I didn't trust them, but it was a tiny bit more of probablistic evidence.

But I'll tell you what really got me to go half-heartedly into the "probably wearing a radio" side of the controversy. And this is what's most remarkable to me. Without thinking about it, I assumed that if there were a better explanation, it would have surfaced on the Web, and I would have heard of it because people would pass it around so eagerly. The silence of the Web has apparently become itself evidence.

This clearly is not a great way to reason, and I'm not recommending it. I'm merely pointing out that I seem to think that, at least with some issues, the fact that no information has surfaced may mean that there is no such information. This is far from perfect. Perhaps the information is in some corner of the Net that I don't visit. Perhaps it's in Chinese or Twi. Perhaps it comes from a genius who, for whatever reason, has 0.0001 "Google juice" and thus goes largely unnoticed. Perhaps it's in some discipline that has been slow to go onto the Net. The lack of information on the Web is by no means a perfect indicator that the information doesn't exist, and it even tends toward a tyranny of the majority.

Yet, the Web has gotten big enough, interconnected enough and serious enough, that it's playing a new epistemological role. It is going from a reference work--the world's largest almanac, perhaps--to an information space with enough intra-references to have its own ways of knowing and its own criteria of belief. It is becoming a world, not a mere "information space." For better or for worse.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization", e-mail self@evident.com.

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