The Internet hasn’t changed our concept of truth as much as some theorists claim

Evgeny Morozov reviews Too Big to Know by David Weinberger: Weinberger argues that on the Internet facts are born “linked,” pointing to other facts and opinions. With time, other entities start linking to them, creating digital traces that can be used to scrutinize and even revise original facts.

On paper, facts look firm and reliable; online, they are always in flux. Furthermore, the Internet, unlike your local library, is infinite. Librarians choose which books to acquire; books that don’t make the cut become invisible. Not so with search engines. What they filter out doesn’t disappear — it stays in the background. New filters, Weinberger claims, don’t “filter out” but “filter forward.”

This triumph of the “networked” and the “hyperlinked” unsettles everything: facts (those who think that Barack Obama was born in Kenya also have facts), books (they are unable to contain “linked” and infinite knowledge) and even knowledge itself (it’s too obsessed with theories and consensus-seeking). Thus, “knowledge has become a network with the characteristics — for better and for worse — of the Net.”

This is an ambitious thesis. It’s also not original. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,” a famous 1979 book by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, makes a similar claim about computerization. “Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are accepted as ‘knowledge statements,’” wrote Lyotard. Weinberger doesn’t mention Lyotard by name but claims that “the Internet showed us that the postmodernists were right.”

Too bad, then, that his argument is ridden with familiar postmodernist fallacies, the chief of which is his lack of discipline in using loaded terms like “knowledge.” This term means different things in philosophy and information science; the truth of a proposition matters in the former but not necessarily in the latter. Likewise, sociologists of knowledge trace the social life of facts, often by studying how and why people come to regard certain claims as “knowledge.” The truth of such claims is often irrelevant.

For epistemologists, however, to say that “S knows that p” three conditions must be met. P must be true; S must believe that p; S must be justified in believing that p. One can’t “know” that “Barack Obama was born in Kenya” because it’s untrue. On the other hand, to “know” that “Barack Obama was born in Hawaii,” one needs to have justification. A copy of his birth certificate would do. The hyperlink nirvana has not rid us of the justification requirement. The Internet may have altered the context in which justification is obtained — one can now link to Obama’s birth certificate — but it hasn’t changed what counts as “knowledge.”

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