Sunday, May 11, 2008

User Created Truth

In a recent Washington Post article, “Truth: Can You Handle It?”, author Monica Hesse poses the question, “For the Google generation, what happens to the concepts of truth and knowledge in a user-generated world of information saturation?” Though the article focuses on how the internet has made it easier for students to rely on easily-accessible information instead of the more difficult (and vaguely described) “knowledge,” it’s not so much a discussion of epistemology, as it is lamenting the laziness of youth.

But what, if anything, does the internet do to the concept of truth? In my opinion, it doesn’t really change anything about truth. Instead, it lays bare some of the mechanisms of how truth is created for all to see. More importantly, it gives a greater number of people control over how truth is shaped.

“Truth” and “truth”

In general, I distinguish between two types of truth – truth and Truth. Truth with a large ‘T’ is the theoretical physical truth of the world that would, theoretically, remain unaltered if humans were to suddenly disappear from existence. Truth is infinite.

The nature of Truth and its relationship to human reality is something I am still unsure of and a topic for another day. In this essay, I will concentrate on the idea of small ‘t’ truth.

Small ‘t’ truth is the truth normally conceived of, and includes scientific truth, religious truth, economic truth... just about every type of truth one can imagine. The difference between truth, and Truth, is that truth is a human notion, a human conception.

I also talk about “Truth,” which is a truth that is treated as True.

Since truth is a human conception, it is inherently finite. Not only is human perception limited in ability and accuracy, but we are limited by our mortality. The amount of truth we have access to is limited. If the facts available to us are limited, then how can we be sure we are privy to the correct truth? In short, I don’t think we can – this would be Truth.

Small ‘t’ truth, then, is constructed from perceived facts, notions, or other truths strung together in a narrative. Since the number of possible facts or truth is infinite, truth must be composed of a select set of facts, notions, truths, etc. The specific array of these that we are exposed to and how we judge them (true, untrue, true but unworthy of attention, etc.) determines what is true.

Andrew Keen’s "Great Seduction"

This brings me back to the original question – what happens to concepts of truth in a “user-generated” world? In his book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” Andrew Keen presents this view on the question (emphasis added):

“I call it the great seduction. The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people – more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. But this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.

Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content.

We – those of us who want to know more about the world, those of us who are consumers of mainstream culture – are being seduced by the empty promise of “democratized” media. For the real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less cultural, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information. One chilling reality in this brave new digital epoch is the blurring, obfuscation, and even disappearance of truth.

Truth, to paraphrase Tom Friedman, is being ‘flattened,’ as we create an on-demand, personalized version that reflects our own individual myopia. One person’s truth becomes as “true” as anyone else’s. Today’s media is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly valid and worthwhile. Richard Edelman, the founder, president, and CEO of Edelman PR, the world’s largest privately owned public relations company: “In this era of exploding media technologies there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself.”

This underlying truth is threatening the quality of civic public discourse, encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft, and stifling creativity. When advertising and public relations are disguised as news, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Instead of more community, knowledge, or culture, all that Web 2.0 really delivers is more dubious content from anonymous sources, hijacking our time and playing to our gullibility.

Before proceeding, I want to put two caveats on this discussion: 1) Full disclosure: I have only read the book’s introduction, so if he develops some highly nuanced opinion in the later chapters that I’ve ignored, please let me know. However, given the nature of his rhetoric, I doubt it changes much.

2) There are lots of things Keen says in regards to the economics of “Web 2.0” (a term I dislike, but will use anyways) that don’t have any direct relation to the main topic at hand: the creation of truth. For a short discussion of these topics, see the “Afterward” at the end of the post.

Constructing truth

For Keen, truth=Truth. This is a common mistake, and I do not fault him for it. The problem is that Keen’s faith that truth=Truth blinds him to the mechanisms that create and control truth. The (or perhaps “my”) truth of things is no different in a user-generated world because truth is always “user-generated,” so to speak. The internet merely exposes this ugly and difficult process for all to see.

How is truth “user-generated”? Remember that there is an unlimited number of truth statements or notions. Since it is neither possible nor desirable to deal with an infinite number of truths, we are limited to a finite selection. From this selection is born truth.

Take a look at this video of Fox News doing its thing (summary of video’s content after the jump):

“Truth” as presented by Fox’s Steve Doocy:

  1. Bill Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground (WU).
  2. The WU was a terrorist organization.
  3. The WU tried to blow up the U.S. Capitol and “killed some people.”
  4. (With dismissive voice) Ayers was never prosecuted.
  5. Bill Ayers posed standing on an American flag in 2001 for a Chicago magazine.
  6. Desecration of the flag is protected by U.S. Constitution.
  7. Ayers has been a long-time associate of Barack Obama.
  8. Ayers is a “troubling guy.” (This is presented as an opinion)
  9. “As soon as the picture came out,” says the “interlocutor” hostess, Obama stated that, (Posted on screen) “Senator Obama is appalled by this disrespect of a flag we love and that so many have fought and died for. There is no excuse for anyone to treat that which we hold so dear with so little regard.” (Read quickly out-loud) “But the politics of association required to link Obama to this picture in any way is ridiculous and a silly distraction (Mr. Doocy interrupts here with, “It’s not ridiculous”) from the challenges facing the American people.”
  10. Barack Obama had his first fundraising meeting at Ayers’ house.
  11. Bill Ayers and Obama worked together on a foundation and some other stuff. (To which hostess and host respond: But that was in 1995, when he was running for state Senate. Doocy brushes it off.)
  12. Ayers was a “domestic underground terrorist,” and this reality was clear to Obama.
  13. This is a big deal, according to Karl Rove.
  14. Obama also linked to Tony Rezko, who is on trial.

The truth Mr. Doocy presents is that Mr. Obama doesn’t respect the U.S. because he associates with a known terrorist who doesn’t like America. The truth is constructed by a finite number of “Truths.” Doocy leaves out quite a few “Truths” he might have otherwise included – including that those killed by the WU were its own members, who died when a bomb detonated prematurely. He also might have mentioned that the WU explicitly tried not to kill people, that Obama was aged 8-14 during the WU’s main operating tenure, that Obama says the Pledge of Allegiance with his hand over his heart, and that he has been a practicing Christian for over 15 years and has attended hundreds of fundraising parties held for him by people who have never stood on an American flag.

Of course, the “Truths” I just presented were equally arbitrary, but I think the alternative narrative is clear. It is created by the “Truths” presented, and the truth of the situation for the individual is based on how they accept or reject the narrative created by the selection of “Truths.”

Amateur vs. Professional

Keen complains that in the editor-free world of Web 2.0, no one is being paid to check credentials and facts. He views professional “purveyors of expert information” as the “gatekeepers” to our culture and the truth it accepts. Trust the man who is paid, argues Keen, but not the amateur.

But what does it mean to be an “amateur”? In a capitalist society, we are all amateurs until someone buys our work. Then, ***POOF*** - we are professionals. This is the only difference, and quality plays no necessary part of the equation. Even though I am paid to write about superconductors, this blog is an amateur venture. Even if I were a professional philosopher and commentator, Keen would still consider me a threat because I could be lying about my identity, which would invalidate my writing. Money and professionalism, Keen believes, are needed for legitimate truth creation. Or as Keen might prefer it, discovering “Truth.”

Keen ignores the fact that the professional media have not always done such a hot job at spreading the “Truth.” Ranging from faked WMD’s, to “objective” military analysts on cable news, and doctors shilling for drug companies on NPR, the traditional gatekeepers of truth have not been doing so well.

Perhaps Keen’s trust in the powers that be should not come as such a big surprise from a man who talks about our “trust in conventional advertising.” He reminds me of a boss I used to have, who wouldn’t let us turn the radio station during commercials because he felt he would miss “important information.” Call me a cynic, but I’d rather take my chances with the scan button.

Nor does Keen mention cases when the “professional” gatekeepers to information are governments who are intent on retaining power and using the media to their own ends, and not the end of “Truth.” Take for example the very professional Tokyo War Museum, which describes how Japanese troops severely disciplined soldiers disguised as civilians after seizing the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937. Many other historians, professional and amateur alike, have shown that this is anything but the truth.

I do not mean to criticize professional content producers or any other type of professional. Trained and experienced professionals are essential in all fields – including truth-making. They are not, however, the only legitimate purveyors of truth. In my estimation, the amateur is as irreplaceably important in a healthy democracy as the professional. They are not rivals, but part of the same stream of truth creation.

Often, Keen criticizes Web 2.0 because it is stealing from artists and making it impossible for good, old-fashioned capitalistic ventures to survive. “By stealing away our eyeballs,” says Keen, “the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music, and news-gathering industries that created the original content those websites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave. Can that be the new business model of the twenty-first century?”

But when it comes to preserving the “Truth,” Keen neglects to mention that “Truth” is not always a profitable commodity.

Keen also ignores the many successful websites with successful business models. One is Talking Points Memo (TMP), which won the 2008 Polk Award for Legal Reporting for its work on the U.S. attorney scandal. Though TMP’s owner, Josh Marshall, was a professional journalist before launching the site, TMP began as a purely amateur venture. TPM now employs seven staff, including editors and reporters.

At the heart of it, Keen is angry that control over the mechanism of truth-creation is being pulled by amateurs from the hands of the powerful. Any Joe Shmoe with a computer and internet connection can become part of the truth creating mechanism that previously took more resources and more power.

When Keen asserts: “Today’s media is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly valid and worthwhile,” I can only ask, when has it ever been different? Personal truth has always been varied, with links and commonalities between truth-holders forged by our communal bonds. As with life, the Internet is an inherently social environment.

The Internet and “Web 2.0” demand an ability to evaluate information and not swallow things wholesale. Keen doesn’t believe people should be creating their own “Truth.”
The truth is that people have always constructed their own truths, and the Internet gives curious minds the tools to create their own truths without relying on professionally constructed narratives.

As Andrew Sullivan said (albeit in the context of the web and politics), “the web does not reward obedience, submission, or authoritarianism.”


Keen claims that the free, amateur produced content of the internet will hurt professional content producers:

“Every visit to Wikipedia’s free information hive means one less customer for a professionally researched and edited encyclopedia, such as Britannica. Every free music or video upload is one less sale of a CD or DVD, meaning one less royalty for the artist who created it.”

There are occasions where this is true. To say that every download or wiki page view means business for the professionals is ludicrous. From a classical economic view à la Adam Smith, the new media is not bad – it’s better. Some artists and content-producers will suffer, it’s true. In the end, I believe that a solution will be found that incorporates the new reality of the Internet.

Radiohead’s In Rainbows is a good example. Since they had completed their contract with EMI, the band decided to sell In Rainbows for whatever price the customer wanted to pay – from ~$0-198 (the actual prices were in British Pounds). Radiohead simply asked its fans to pay what they thought the music was worth. According to admittedly non-scientific but large internet surveys, a third of downloaders paid no money, and of those who paid, the average price was ~$8.

According to this article, the typical artists makes “$1 in royalties for each full-priced ($16.98) CD sold through normal retail channels.” Obviously it depends on the artists’ contracts, and other estimates I’ve seen vary from $0.75-$1.50. In either case, Radiohead probably made at least as much money from their give-aways as they would have from traditional sales.

And despite distributing the album in this manner for a few months at the end of 2007, the CD still hit #1 on the Billboard 200 and UK Album Chart when it was finally released in early 2008.

Granted, a group with a less fervent fan base might not have been able to pull this off. But the possibility of savvy artists selling digital albums for far lower prices than record labels sell them for while making more money themselves is, I think, a good thing.

Keen also seems to think that talent must be identified and nurtured by publishing houses and record labels. But this ignores much of how these industries actually operate. (see 36-37) (Discuss how his notion of “nurturing” is kinda strange and also how plenty of internet-based self-promoters distribute their own content and then translate this into financial success. Maddox’s The Best Page in the Universe is a great example. Started as a pet project in 1996 by George Ouzounian, (a.k.a Maddox), The Best Page In the Universe has itself not made any money (Maddox does not sell advertising for his site, even though it has had well over 200 million hits). Instead, Maddox has written a book, The Alphabet of Manliness, which climbed to #2 on the New York Times Best sellers list and was #1 on Amazon.

The idea that talent must be found and nurtured by middlemen ignores many tenets of a competition based economy. The whole point of talent scouts, agents, etc., is to try to find things that will be attractive to consumers. Things people want to buy. The internet allows talented and persistent content-producers to reach their market without approval from the Man, so to speak.


Landon said...

I am unsure how I feel about taking Wikipedia articles and other web materials as true. I, being the elitist that I am, do care a lot about expert opinion, and the fact that Wikipedia et al. can be edited and contributed to by non-experts makes me somewhat uneasy, so internet-truth will never be true-for-me. However, since I recognize that the desire for expert opinion is simply a personal preference, the idea of internet-truth being true for some people is fascinating. Truth-for-me will always come down to logic and (in my ordinary unreflective day to day activities or when I’m feeling generous) math, science, and other information verified by numerous independent experts. However, since truth-for-me undermines itself by logically showing that even logic and math are subjective and that verification — or even any degree of evidence or justification — is impossible, I find the idea of the unverified truth of the internet interesting. My Wittgensteinean view of truth is that what is true for an individual is the set of sentences that are most supported by the evidence, where what counts as evidence is determined by the context of the consideration of the truth of the sentences and views of the community that the individual belongs to, adjusted so that more weight is placed upon the community members whose opinion the individual most values given the topic and the circumstances. In other words, truth varies from person to person and also varies for each person as they move from community to community (a sentence could be true for a deeply religious scientist when he is in church and false when he is talking to his colleagues — and this could be so without any self deception or contradiction on the part of the scientist; the sentence is true-in-community-x and not true-in-community-y, and these two facts are not contradictory any more that ‘it is hot here today’ being true at the equator in summer and false at the North pole in winter).

The aspect of Wikipedia-truth that I find most intriguing is that it has the potential to be a system that openly recognizes a Wittgensteinian view of truth (which is true-for-me) yet is not undermined by that recognition (as my belief system is) but rather is strengthened by it. Currently, this is not the case, but it easily could happen if the dominant view of Wikipedians eventually becomes that Wikipedia is the most accurate source of information (and many Wikipedians probably believe that it will be in 100 years or so). Given my Wittgensteinean views, the belief of future Wikipedians that Wikipedia is the most accurate source of information will mean that it is the most accurate source for that community, and thus will simply be true (for them). The Wikipedia article on Truth could come to say that the dominant theory of truth is that true statements are the ones found on Wikipedia, and it could eventually even come to say that truth can be edited and is determined by the community of people who edit it, all of which would be complete true (-for-them; the part about community editing is already true-for-me, but it is emphatically false in many communities). As you were saying, Mark, truth on the internet really just makes the entire underpinnings of truth more obvious, which doesn’t change anything as far as I am concerned, but does change the truth about truth for many people.

On another note, you focused a lot on the idea that truth is finite, and that this was a limiting factor on human truth. For me, the bigger concern is that truth is an inherently linguistic concept and only applies to sentences (or perhaps propositions), and language is obviously completely subjective, among its other limiting factors. However, I think I do see your concern. I initially read you as saying that the finite time and finite experience of a human life means that we can only receive so many facts, only come to know a limited number of true things, which isn’t really very worrisome. I would give just about anything to know a few objectively true things. On further reflection, though, it seems that you are adopting a rather Nietzschean view of objectivity, where objective truth would be the view from everywhere (as opposed to the traditional philosophical view of objective truth as the view from nowhere, what would be true without any perspective), in other words, the more perspectives from which you view something the closer you come to an objective picture of it (where ‘perspective’ is taken very broadly so that it includes not only the time and location of the observer but also their values, ways of dividing the world, and other factors that make up their worldview). Thus true objectivity would be to view everything throughout time from every possible perspective, and on this view of objectivity the finiteness of a human life — in terms of time, location, the way our eyes and brain divide up the world into objects, and our finite systems of values — are very serious concerns to our attempts to acquire truth. These concerns are deeply related to my linguistic worries because language not only is limited in its perspective it is also perspective limiting because language reinforces certain worldviews, making value systems and ways of dividing the world seem so natural that it is hard to imagine different ones.

To those interested in the subject of truth and authority in our post-objectivity age, I highly recommend David Foster Wallace's essay "Authority and American Usage", which deals with dictionaries in particular but gives brilliant and humorous insight into the topic of truth in general.

Daniel said...

Jesus guys! There is quite a bit of information to consider in this entry as well as in Landon's thorough comment. Firstly, I must admit that while I read what the two of you had to say, I did not pursue any of the links in the article and I was unable to access the video.
I agree that in some sense the truth in community-created and that the internet and its contributions to truth have only served to make this more apparant. And yes, this Keen does seem to be vainly fighting for the old status quo, in a way which I find really contradicts his championing of the market system. These new forms of information dissemination are working within the capitalist market system; they have just capitalized upon the fact that many people are satisfied with journalism, music, video, etc. that is available free. Yes, this has a negative effect on professionalization in our culture, especially in the arts, but the market is king and it has decided that free news/music/art (which is able to exist because of the efforts of amateurs and the ability to produce and disseminate cheaply with digital media) is here to stay [and may ultimately supplant well-funded news/music/art].
My thoughts a bit scattered, but I will take them as they come.
I think that you owe us an explanation or at least some stronger hints at the relationship between truth and Truth. I think that while the number of truths are infinite and are all quite subjective, I cannot help but think that some truths have a closer relation to Truth than others. While Mr. Doocy notes that Mr. Ayers was a member of The Weather Underground, it is possible for my neighbor to hold that Mr. Ayers is not and never has been associated with any organization known as or reffered to as The Weather Underground. I would be inclined to say that my neighbors view was not a truth, even one that may or may not be widely held. Rather, I am inclined to say that my neighbor is mistaken and that his/her view does not constitute a truth at all, but a falsehood.
Yes, when considering human actions on a complex plane of human motives and qualities, the knowledge or ignorance of various facts and the presentation or with-holding of those facts lead to differing interpretations of the actions or "truths" about a person or his/her actions, all of these interpretations or "truths" rely on a body of knowledge or facts, each of which carries a level or degree of truth of its own, but these levels of truth for facts do not exist in a vacuum but in a world full of human beings that share perceptual capacities and (predominantly) culturally-defined modes of processing. I worry that this line of thinking leads to a much more complex issue (which I am sure that you were trying to avoid), but I don't think that it can be completely ignored in dealing with this issue.
Talking about humans and events that take place on a human scale [or community of humans scale] is particularly prone to considerations of subjective truth because all human action is defined using a system of intentionality that, while helpful in discussing such things, inevitably distorts them and because human action can be understood equally well in various ways depending upon the narrative structure into which the action is placed (this is why our actions appear different to us in the moment than they do upon reflection after some hours, a year, many years...).
While I am distrustful of the old regime (especially so long as Fox News exists), the one Keen is so keen to protect, I am also extremely wary of this new version, this free-for-all of information creation and dissemination. While the old regime is dangerous insofar as it knowingly exploited its position as a provider of information, or (perhaps worse) allowed information and such to be defined by the market, disseminating information based on the amount of money it could bring in for media owners (Rupert Murdoch), this new version scares me because of the massive ignorance and stupidity of the general public. Both forms of information dissemination are detrimental to democracy and serve to damage an already weak system, capitalist "democracy". Call my notion of truth elitist if you will, but I am trying to approach it in a relatively practical way...

Well, as you may have noticed, I have a lot of opinions and thoughts about the matters raised in your piece and now that I have haphazardly spit out a bunch of incomplete and partial thoughts, I will leave further discussion to shorter comments or to real live discussion the next time that I happen to see you folks. If this piece of your wasn't inacessible because of its own length and complexity, then Landon's comment made it so; and if Landon's comment didn't make it so, mine will certainly help...