A single new piece of truth

I have a favourite bookstore – BMV on Edward Street in Toronto, right next to The World’s (Allegedly) Biggest Bookstore. It’s packed to the ceiling with used and remaindered books.

Last month, I picked up Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell. A collection of his essays for the New England Journal of Medicine from 1971 to 1973, it examines sociology, communications, entomology, technology and biology from the perspective of microbiology, the web of hidden relationships that powers life at its very core.

Of the scientific process, he wrote: “There is nothing to touch the spectacle. In the midst of what seems a collective derangement of minds in total disorder, with bits of information being scattered about, torn to shreds, disintegrated, reconstituted, engulfed, in a kind of activity that seems as random and agitated as that of bees in a disturbed part of the hive, there suddenly emerges, with the purity of a slow phrase of music, a single new piece of truth about nature.”

I have to wonder what he’d have made of the current state of information development and dissemination on the Internet, specifically the “wiki” ethic and the blogosphere.

Thomas was born in New York in 1913, went to Princeton and Harvard, and held academic research posts at a series of prestigious institutions before dying in 1993. I can write this with a level of confidence in its veracity because it comes from the bio notes in the book. These facts have been collected and fact-checked and the unlikely errors corrected with each reprinting of the book. I have confidence in this information because it has been verified by an organization (in this case, a publisher) whose vested interest lies in accuracy and which has the resources at its disposal to ensure it. This is intermediated information — there is a process between transmission and consumption to weed out unintended or spiteful errors and omissions. 

The same thing can’t be said of Wikipedia, the “open source” online encyclopedia, and its ilk. The very democratic principle which makes it admirable in some ways makes it at best suspect as a source of information: Anyone can create, amend and append entries, and no weight is given to the expertise or credentials of the contributor. How can a user have the remotest trust that the information is accurate and not simply a lowest-common-denominator belief? It’s telling that in one case where some libelous references were inserted in the bio of a Robert F. Kennedy aide linking him to the JFK assassination – which lay uncorrected for months – the confessed poster said he thought the site was a joke.

Likewise, blogs can be useful for areas of special interest, and many are of extraordinary value for news and analysis of very weighty matters. But there’s no blogger seal of authenticity. To know whether to trust the content, you must be able to judge the bona fides of the contributor. They can be implied by reputation, inferred by the continuing credibility of the content or, in some cases, dependent on the identity of a blogger who is a known value because of offline roles. These are sources of disintermediated information.

So the wise user opts for the compromise of self-intermediated information. One does what one can to verify, independently, the facts before acting on or accepting them. I think Thomas would be disappointed — profoundly humane and hopeful for the potential of man to create and communicate as a social species, the notion of having to systematically draw back from the collective intelligence and confirm it by singular judgment would have little appeal for him.

Fortunately, Dave Webb has been intermediated by the editorial staff of CC. He is the special projects editor for the IT Business Group, and can’t believe he just referred to himself in the third person.
dwebb@itbusiness.ca

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