the Internet and the Culture of “knowledge”

Posted: 1st August 2011 by traumaturgist in culture
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So lest you lurkers (and I know you’re out there) think that all I do is point out peoples’ idiocy and generally shit on everything, I thought I’d permalink to a very interesting article by Chris Colin on Wired called “Rate This Article: What’s Wrong with the Culture of Critique.”  Since I already commented on this and I don’t know if this link will ultimately disappear or not, I thought I’d include my original comments below (with a few modifications and additions):

I agree with a lot of what Chris says (except for acknowledging Roger Ebert as an authoritative source of any knowledge). But where Eric Davis refers to Internet culture as a “culture of knowingness” versus not-knowing, I would extend this to critique the status of this knowledge itself.  For the most part I would not call this knowing, but the illusion of knowing.  That is to say: yes, the Internet presents us with an astonishing amalgamation and proliferation of factoids…but how often does this coalesce and congeal into knowledge about the world that we “take with us” when we get up and go outside?  How often do we really perform this cognitive activity – at once so banal and so important – as we surf?  Perhaps virtually we’re continually on the verge of constructing knowledge; perhaps if we could halt the inundation of imagery, video clips and review systems we could see that an atomist accumulation of factoids (Pippa’s butt measurements, the toxin levels in Amy Winehouse’s corpse, the serial killer I’d be according to a Facebook app, how many people Like this video of a barking cat, such-and-such “Top-10 Amazon Reviewer” gives book X five stars, exactly how many stupid things celebrity X says) does not, in itself, constitute the weltanschauung we all dynamically construct every day?  I’m not saying anything particularly new when I argue that when this construction is subsumed within a parade of information the ability to reason and argue decreases.1  What’s more, this flow of information is increasingly geared, through cookies and unerasable(?) LSOs, to our own histories to give us the comfort of having ourselves reflected back to ourselves within the virtual pool.  Anyone remember the myth of Narcissus?

As a scholar who is eternally wistful for what the Internet could have been and eternally at odds with what the Internet is (I rant about this a lot – here, ironically enough), I must insist: having an amalgamation of factoids and statements does not constitute knowledge. Whether one looks for it on or offline, knowledge comes to be within the very interstices of facts – how they are put together, reasoned through, dismantled and built anew.  You cannot learn that from the Internet.

I am convinced that what will teach you this (or teach it most effectively) is an Arts/Humanities education when taken seriously and not derogated as a waste of time from trade-related programs. Trades (sciences, business/economics etc) excel at giving you rote amalgamations of knowledge for a certain end, but economics, not really at teaching one how to wander through the proverbial garden of ideas and appreciate their relevance. This is what the liberal arts, approached with the right openness of mind, can do in the 21st century.  Perhaps i’m drawing too binarist a comparison between trades I don’t know anything about here – but my goal is to point up a disquieting trend against abstract thinking (the kind which, in my opinion, helps construct knowledge) that also moves toward the rote knowledge that exists within predefined disciplinary systems (economics, law, the sciences etc).  Of course, these systems wouldn’t exist without the inspirational “abstract” thought that engendered them; but that interrelationship is a whole other article. 🙂

Let’s face it – the Internet is tailor-made for lazy people.  At times I’m one of them – even though I am trained in rigorous critical thinking, I’m sure I lapse into moments of mental laziness where I let the cavalcade of virtual objects do my thinking for me.  But this is precisely why my quantity and quality of Intenet exposure is severely limited (and being a graduate student with no life helps :D).

A final note on reviews and rating systems.  Chris makes an excellent point when he observes the plethora of ratings, review systems and “most recommended” lists.  My comment on this: recommended by whom, exactly?  Are these real people recommending these products/services?  How can we tell?  I remember something I read long ago about how when Egyptian nobles were buried in tombs, the priests would construct false rooms with broken walls and leave broken vases and items strewn across the floor.  The reason?  If thieves managed to break into the tomb they would (hopefully) get the impression that someone had already been there and robbed the valuables (whether this was successful or not I leave to you to ponder).  Now the priests wanted people out; yet in the twenty-first century, the same tactic is used to bring people in.  “Oh, look – 1000 people have already liked this article or this product!”  Are they real people?  Or are they the equivalent of vases scattered by a virtual architect building up a product or idea in our minds as a result?  Add to this the number of websites that actively harvest forums posts from other websites (e.g. provider reviews inevitably pop up on other forums sites across the Internet) and the signal-to-noise ratio of the Internet changes accordingly.

 Sorry Chris…I declined to rate your article. 🙂

  1. How many times have people quoted to you a variant of the following: “arguing on the Internet is like running in the Special Olympics…even if you win, you’re still retarded?” Assuming, for a moment, this is true – is it because of the argument, or is it because of an increasing inability to register and sustain critical argument on the Internet? Or is it plain ol’ anti-intellectualism – our inheritance from the 1980s – transplanted on to the web?