Thoughts on the Internet's Founding Myths

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Whenever I put forth on the Internet's numerous newsgroups, discussion fora and Websites a controversial view, an iconoclastic opinion, or a much-disputed thesis, the winning argument against my propositions starts with "everyone knows that ...". For a self-styled nonconformist medium, the Internet is the reification of herd mentality.

Actually, it is founded on the rather explicit belief in the implicit wisdom of the masses. This particularly pernicious strong version of egalitarianism postulates that veracity, accuracy, and truth are emergent phenomena, the inevitable and, therefore, guaranteed outcome of multiple interactions between users.

But the population of Internet users is not comprised of representative samples of experts in every discipline. Quite the contrary. The barriers to entry are so low that the Internet attracts those less gifted intellectually. It is a filter that lets in the stupid, the mentally ill, the charlatan and scammer, the very young, the bored, and the unqualified. It is far easier to publish a blog, for instance, than to write for the New York Times. Putting up a Website with all manner of spurious claims for knowledge or experience is easy compared to the peer review process that vets and culls scientific papers.

One can ever "contribute" to an online "encyclopedia", the Wikipedia, without the slightest acquaintance the topic one is "editing". Consequently, the other day, I discovered, to my utter shock, that Eichmann changed his name, posthumously, to Otto. It used to be Karl Adolf, at least until he was executed in 1962.

Granted, there are on the Internet isolated islands of academic merit, intellectually challenging and invigorating discourse, and true erudition or even scholarship. But they are mere islets in the tsunami of falsities, fatuity, and inanities that constitutes the bulk of User Generated Content (UGC).

Which leads me to the second myth: that access is progress.

Oceans of information are today at the fingertips of one and sundry. This is undisputed. The Internet is a vast storehouse of texts, images, audio recordings, and databases. But what matters is whether people make good use of this serendipitous cornucopia. A savage who finds himself amidst the collections of the Library of Congress is unlikely to benefit much.

Alas, most people today are cultural savages, Internet users the more so. They are lost among the dazzling riches that surround them. Rather than admit to their inferiority and accept their need to learn and improve, they claim "equal status". It is a form of rampant pathological narcissism, a defense mechanism that is aimed to fend off the injury of admitting to one's inadequacies and limitations.

Internet users have developed an ethos of anti-elitism. There are no experts, only opinions, there are no hard data, only poll results. Everyone is equally suited to contribute to any subject. Learning and scholarship are frowned on or even actively discouraged. The public's taste has completely substituted for good taste. Yardsticks, classics, science - have all been discarded.

Study after study have demonstrated clearly the decline of functional literacy (the ability to read and understand labels, simple instructions, and very basic texts) even as literacy (in other words, repeated exposure to the alphabet) has increased dramatically all over the world.

In other words: most people know how to read but precious few understand what they are reading. Yet, even the most illiterate, bolstered by the Internet's mob-rule, insist that their interpretation of the texts they do not comprehend is as potent and valid as anyone else's.

Public Intellectuals: The Rise of the Librarians and the Decline of the Author

There are two flavours of public intellectual: librarians and authors.

Librarians possess a synoptic view of mostly trivial and anecdotal data, interspersed with histories, accepted truths, slogans, catchphrases, clichés, and platitudes. They are good at composing bibliographies, regurgitating knowledge, and cross-referencing information. Though always fanatically biased and orthodox, they are often meticulous, conscientious, and erudite. The best of them are great and entertaining historiographers. Daniel Boorstein and Paul Johnson are prime examples of modern-day Librarians as are many popularizers of science, such as Carl Sagan. David Hume was a curious hybrid: a Librarian, yet with sublimity and penetration that place him firmly in the authors’ camp.

In contrast to Librarians, Authors focus on one topic at a time. They are rarely as learned as the Librarians because they are less concerned with precedent, received wisdom, and with the work of their predecessors. Their product is frequently academically sloppy and their texts unintelligible on first skimming. They coin neologisms and invent whole new languages, narratives, and fields of discourse to describe their work and convey it to the uninitiated. They are innovative, ground-breaking, and iconoclastic. Notable modern Authors include Freud, Einstein, Marx, Wittgenstein, and Sartre.

In the great scheme of things, Librarians are responsible for introducing Authors and their works to the public. Regrettably, as most Librarians are hoarders with conventional and intellectually-provincial minds, they often fail to grasp the essential insights and revolutionary implications of the Authors’ words. Instead of “getting the big picture”, Librarians resort to nitpicking and criticism and purvey distorted and over-simplified versions of Authors’ ideas, embedded in faux historical “context”. Authors struggle to think outside the boxes that Librarians keep foisting upon the academic disciplines within which they both operate.

Modern technology and the New Media – concerned as they are with data hoarding and taxonomy - have sealed the triumphant ascendance of the Librarian over the Author.

Web 2.0 - Hoarding, Not Erudition

When I was growing up in a slum in Israel, I devoutly believed that knowledge and education will set me free and catapult me from my miserable circumstances into a glamorous world of happy learning. But now, as an adult, I find myself in an alien universe where functional literacy is non-existent even in developed countries, where "culture" means merely sports and music, where science is decried as evil and feared by increasingly hostile and aggressive masses, and where irrationality in all its forms  (religiosity, the occult, conspiracy theories) flourishes.

The few real scholars and intellectuals left are on the retreat, back into the ivory towers of a century ago. Increasingly, their place is taken by self-taught "experts", narcissistic bloggers, wannabe "authors" and "auteurs", and partisan promoters of (often self-beneficial) "causes". The mob thus empowered and complimented feels vindicated and triumphant. But history cautions us that mobs have never produced enlightenment - only concentration camps and bloodied revolutions. the Internet can and will be used against us if we don't regulate it.

Dismal results ensue:

The Wikipedia "encyclopedia" - a repository of millions of factoids, interspersed with juvenile trivia, plagiarism, bigotry, and malice - is "edited" by anonymous users with unlimited access to its contents and absent or fake credentials.

Hoarding has replaced erudition everywhere. People hoard e-books, mp3 tracks, and photos. They memorize numerous fact and "facts" but can't tell the difference between them or connect the dots. The synoptic view of knowledge, the interconnectivity of data, the emergence of insight from treasure-troves of information are all lost arts.

In an interview in early 2007, the publisher of the New-York Times said that he wouldn't mourn the death of the print edition of the venerable paper and its replacement by a digital one. This nonchalant utterance betrays unfathomable ignorance. Online readers are vastly different to consumers of printed matter: they are younger, their attention span is far shorter, their interests far more restricted and frivolous. The New-York Times online will be forced into becoming a tabloid - or perish altogether.

Fads like environmentalism and alternative "medicine" spread malignantly and seek to silence dissidents, sometimes by violent means.

The fare served by the electronic media everywhere now consists largely of soap operas, interminable sports events, and reality TV shows. True, niche cable channels cater to the preferences of special audiences. But, as a result of this inauspicious fragmentation, far fewer viewers are exposed to programs and features on science, literature, arts, or international affairs.

Reading is on terminal decline. People spend far more in front of screens - both television's and computer - than leafing through pages. Granted, they read online: jokes, anecdotes, puzzles, porn, and e-mail or IM chit-chat. Those who try to tackle longer bits of text, tire soon and revert to images or sounds.

With few exceptions, the "new media" are a hodgepodge of sectarian views and fabricated "news". The few credible sources of reliable information have long been drowned in a cacophony of fakes and phonies or gone out of business.

It is a sad mockery of the idea of progress. The more texts we make available online, the more research is published, the more books are written - the less educated people are, the more they rely on visuals and soundbites rather than the written word, the more they seek to escape reality and be anesthetized rather than be challenged and provoked.

Even the ever-slimming minority who do wish to be enlightened are inundated by a suffocating and unmanageable avalanche of indiscriminate data, comprised of both real and pseudo-science. There is no way to tell the two apart, so a "democracy of knowledge" reigns where everyone is equally qualified and everything goes and is equally merited. This relativism is dooming the twenty-first century to become the beginning of a new "Dark Age", hopefully a mere interregnum between two periods of genuine enlightenment.

The Demise of the Expert and the Ascendance of the Layman

In the age of Web 2.0, authoritative expertise is slowly waning. The layman reasserts herself as a fount of collective mob "wisdom". Information - unsorted, raw, sometimes wrong - substitutes for structured, meaningful knowledge. Gatekeepers - intellectuals, academics, scientists, and editors, publishers, record companies, studios - are summarily and rudely dispensed with. Crowdsourcing (user-generated content, aggregated for commercial ends by online providers) replaces single authorship.

A confluence of trends conspired to bring about these ominous developments:

1. An increasingly narcissistic culture that encourages self-absorption, haughtiness, defiance of authority, a sense of entitlement to special treatment and omniscience, incommensurate with actual achievements. Narcissistic and vain Internet users feel that they are superior and reject all claims to expertise by trained professionals.

2. The emergence of technologies that remove all barriers to entry and allow equal rights and powers to all users, regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, or skills: wikis (the most egregious manifestation of which is the Wikipedia), search engines (Google), blogging (that is rapidly supplanting professionally-written media), and mobiles (cell) phones equipped with cameras for ersatz documentation and photojournalism. Disintermediation rendered redundant all brokers, intermediaries, and gatekeepers of knowledge and quality of content.

3. A series of species-threatening debacles by scientists and experts who collaborated with the darkest, vilest, and most evil regimes humanity has ever produced. This sell-out compromised their moral authority and standing. The common folk began not only to question their ethical credentials and claim to intellectual leadership, but also to paranoidally suspect their motives and actions, supervise, and restrict them. Spates of scandals by scientists who falsified lab reports and intellectuals who plagiarized earlier works did nothing to improve the image of academe and its denizens.

4. By its very nature, science as a discipline and, more particularly, scientific theories, aspire to discover the "true" and "real", but are doomed to never get there. Indeed, unlike religion, for instance, science claims no absolutes and proudly confesses to being merely asymptotic to the Truth. In medicine, physics, and biology, today's knowledge is tomorrow's refuse. Yet, in this day and age of maximal uncertainty, minimal personal safety, raging epidemics, culture shocks and kaleidoscopic technological change, people need assurances and seek immutables.

Inevitably, this gave rise to a host of occult and esoteric "sciences", branches of "knowledge", and practices, including the fervid observance of religious fundamentalist rites and edicts. These offered alternative models of the Universe, replete with parent-figures, predictability, and primitive rituals of self-defense in an essentially hostile world. As functional literacy crumbled and people's intellectual diet shifted from books to reality TV, sitcoms, and soap operas, the old-new disciplines offer instant gratification that requires little by way of cerebral exertion and critical faculties.

Moreover, scientific theories are now considered as mere "opinions" to be either "believed" or "disbelieved", but no longer proved, or, rather falsified. In his novel, "Exit Ghost", Philip Roth puts this telling exclamation in the mouth of the protagonist, Richard Kliman: "(T)hese are people who don't believe in knowledge".

The Internet tapped into this need to "plug and play" with little or no training and preparation. Its architecture is open, its technologies basic and "user-friendly", its users largely anonymous, its code of conduct (Netiquette) flexible and tolerant, and the "freedoms" it espouses are anarchic and indiscriminate.

The first half of the 20th century was widely thought to be the terrible culmination of Enlightenment rationalism. Hence its recent worrisome retreat . Moral and knowledge relativism (e.g., deconstruction) took over. Technology obliged and hordes of "users" applied it to gnaw at the edifice of three centuries of Western civilization as we know it.

The Decline of Text and the Re-emergence of the Visual

YouTube has already replaced Yahoo and will shortly overtake Google as the primary Web search destination among children and teenagers. Its repository of videos - hitherto mere entertainment - is now beginning to also serve as a reference library and a news source. This development seals the fate of text. It is being dethroned as the main vehicle for the delivery of information, insight, and opinion.

This is only the latest manifestation in a plague of intellectual turpitude that is threatening to undermine not only the foundations of our civilization, but also our survival as a species. People have forgotten how to calculate because they now use calculators; they don't bother to memorize facts or poetry because it is all available online; they read less, much less, because they are inundated with sounds and sights, precious few of which convey any useful information or foster personal development.

A picture is worth 1000 words. But, words have succeeded pictograms and ideograms and hieroglyphs for good reasons. The need to combine the symbols of the alphabet so as to render intelligible and communicable one's inner states of mind is conducive to abstract thought. It is also economical; imposes mental discipline; develops the imagination; engenders synoptic thinking; and preserves the idiosyncrasies and the uniqueness of both the author and its cultural-social milieu. Visual are a poor substitute as far as these functions go.

In a YouTube world, literacy will have vanished and with it knowledge. Visuals and graphics can convey information, but they rarely proffer organizing principles and theories. They are explicit and thus shallow and provide no true insight. They demand little of the passive viewer and, therefore, are anti-intellectual. In this last characteristic, they are true to the Internet and its anti-elitist, anti-expert, mob-wisdom-driven spirit. Visuals encourage us to outsource our "a-ha" moments and the formation of our worldview and to entrust them to the editorial predilections of faceless crowds of often ignorant strangers.

Moreover, the sheer quantity of material out there makes it impossible to tell apart true and false and to distinguish between trash and quality. Inundated by "user-generated-content" and disoriented, future generations will lose their ability to discriminate. YouTube is only the logical culmination of processes started by the Web. The end result will be an entropy of information, with bits isotropically distributed across vast farms of servers and consumed by intellectual zombies who can't tell the difference and don't care to.

As long predicted, narrowcasting did displace and replace broadcasting. Every user now assembles his or her diet of news, information, and entertainment from across multiple web properties. No two consumers view or read the same content. Alas, this also means that the overwhelming majority of people opt for the lightest fare, the junk food of culture, the path of least resistance, getting immersed in cheap visuals and shying away from text, however cursory. On YouTube, videos which deal with arts and sciences, analyses and opinion get hundreds of views at most (unless they are proffered by celebrities.) The hoi-polloi watch cats jumping off roofs and babies sucking their toes (or play Angry Birds.)

Twitter: Narcissism or Age-old Communication?

It has become fashionable to castigate Twitter - the microblogging service - as an expression of rampant narcissism. Yet, narcissists are verbose and they do not take kindly to limitations imposed on them by third parties. They feel entitled to special treatment and are rebellious. They are enamored with their own voice. Thus, rather than gratify the average narcissist and provide him or her with narcissistic supply (attention, adulation, affirmation), Twitter is actually liable to cause narcissistic injury.

From the dawn of civilization, when writing was the province of the few and esoteric, people have been memorizing information and communicating it using truncated, mnemonic bursts. Sizable swathes of the Bible resemble Twitter-like prose. Poetry, especially blank verse one, is Twitterish. To this very day, newspaper headlines seek to convey information in digestible, resounding bits and bites. By comparison, the novel - an avalanche of text - is a newfangled phenomenon.

Twitter is telegraphic, but this need not impinge on the language skills of its users. On the contrary, coerced into its Procrustean dialog box, many interlocutors become inventive and creativity reigns as bloggers go atwitter.

Indeed, Twitter is the digital reincarnation of the telegraph, the telegram, the telex, the text message (SMS, as we Europeans call it), and other forms of business-like, data-rich, direct communication. Like them, it forces its recipients to use their own imagination and creativity to decipher the code and flesh it out with rich and vivid details. It is unlikely to vanish, though it may well be supplanted by even more pecuniary modes of online discourse.

Gmail not Safe, Google not Comprehensive


I. Gmail Not Safe


Gmail has a gaping security hole, hitherto ignored by pundits, users, and Google (the company that owns and operates Gmail) itself.


The login page of Gmail sports an SSL "lock". This means that all the information exchanged with Gmail's servers - the user's name and password - is encrypted. A hacker who intercepted the communicated data would find it difficult and time-consuming to decrypt them.


Yet, once past the login page, Gmail reverts to plain text, non-encrypted pages. These can easily be tapped into by hackers, especially when such data travels over unsecured, unencrypted wireless networks ('hot spots"). To make clear: while a hacker may not be able to get hold of your username and password, he can still read all your e-mail messages!


Google is aware of this vulnerability. Tucked at the bottom of the "account settings" page there is a button allowing the user to switch to "https browser session" (in other words, to encrypt all the pages subsequent to the login). Gmail Help advises Gmail users to choose the always-on https option if they are using unsafe computers (for instance, in Internet cafes) and/or non-secure communication networks. They explicitly warn against possible identity theft ("impersonation") and exposure of bank statements and other damaging information if the user does not change his or her default settings.


But how many users tweak their settings in such depth? Very few. Why doesn't Gmail warn its users that they are being switched from the secure login page to a free-for-all, hacker-friendly mode with unencrypted pages? It's anybody's guess. Gmail provide a hint, though: https pages are slower to load. Gmail knowingly sacrifices its users' safety and security on the altar of headline-catching performance.


II. Google not Comprehensive


I have been tracing 154 keywords on Google, most of them over the last seven years. In the last two years, the number of search results for these keywords combined has declined by 37%. For one fifth of these keywords, the number of search results declined by 80% and more! This is at a time of exponential growth in the number of Web pages (not to mention deep databases).


All keywords pertain to actual topics and to individuals who have never ceased their activity. The keywords are not clustered or related and cover disparate topics such as mental health; US foreign policy; Balkan history and politics; philosophy and ethics; economics and finance, etc.


The conclusion is inescapable: Google's coverage has declined precipitously in quantitative terms. This drop in search results also pertains to Google News.


I chose 10 prime news Websites and used their own, on-site search engines to generate results for my list of keywords. Thus, from each news Website, I obtained a list of articles in which one of my keywords featured in the title. The Websites maintained archive pages for their columnists, so I had also detailed lists of all the articles published by specific columnists on specific news Websites.


I now reverted to Google News. First, I typed the name of the columnist alone and got a total of his or her articles. Then I added the name of the news Website to the query and obtained a sub-total of articles published by the columnist in the chosen news website. The results were shocking: typically, Google News covered less than one third of the articles published by any given columnist and, in many cases, less than one tenth. I then tried the same search on Google and was able to find there many news articles not included in the Google News SERPs (results pages). Yet, even put together, Google and Google News covered less than one half of the items.


When I tried the list of keywords, the results improved, albeit marginally: Google News included about 40% of the articles I found on the various news Websites. Together with Google, the figure rose to 60%.


Still, this means that Google News excludes more than one half of all the articles published on the Web. Add this to Google's Incredibly Shrinking Search Results and we are left with three possible explanations: (1) Google has run out of server space (not likely); (2) Google's algorithms are too exclusive and restrictive (very likely); (3) Google is deploying some kind of content censorship or editorship (I found no trace of such behavior).

Also Read:

The Six Sins of the Wikipedia

Is Education a Public Good?

The Idea of Reference

The Future of the Book

The Kidnapping of Content

The Internet and the Library

The Future of Online Reference

Will Content Ever be Profitable?

The Disintermediation of Content

The Future of Electronic Publishing

Free Online Scholarship - Interview with Peter Suber

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