Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Crowdbouncing II

It would be best to think of this as more of the last post; I am still on about the same things.

In the Clay Shirky video I posted this morning, he talks about the manner in which wikipedia came into existence as an alternative to a web encyclopedia that was supposed to be called 'Newpedia' ... which would be a researched, fact-checked information tool that would have articles that were a trustworthy source of information.  And this, too, relates to the 'old way' of doing things.

The old way of thinking says that we absolutely should never, ever print anything that isn't corroborated and TRUE, because if we do people trying to base what they know on what we say will be misled and that will lead to disastrous consequences.  If you're led to think, for example, that swimming right after you eat won't lead to cramps, then you'll go swimming, get a cramp, and die.  For that reason, fact-checking is a critical, no-nonsense business and people who don't take fact-checking seriously should be held at the same level as murderers who have committed manslaughter.  You can believe that in the newsmedia where I worked, that was precisely the attitude.

The problem is, of course, that bad information still slipped through.  Swimming after eating doesn't produce cramps, except that a certain number of people are going to get cramps while swimming, and a certain number of those cramp-getting people are going to get those cramps right after eating, so it will seem like there is a connection there.  The same connection was made when people screamed that silicon implants caused breast cancer, because some women with implants got cancer right after getting the implants.  As it happened, the incidence of cancer didn't actually increase, but the invention of the implant allowed an association to be made that had never existed before (because there were no implants in existence), and people - news media included - rushed at that association at full muster.

The thing about news media, and I've mentioned this before, is that it relies on corroboration of facts by asking experts if something is true.  If you can find two experts (or three, or four, or however many you need depending on the splash the story will make) who both have credibility to agree on a story, then you have corroboration and you can print that story.  The problem is, if it happens that all your experts are screwed up because they all read a report ten years ago that has long since been proved false, but they still believe it, you will have no trouble corroborating your story no matter how many people you need.  And thus bullshit gets printed.

Now, the belief in getting things RIGHT before moving forward has permeated through the culture, to the point where if someone in the public eye gets something wrong, that someone deserves to be vilified for not first fact-checking whatever it was they said - with the addendum that if someone admits they don't know something that everyone is expected to know, we can vilify for that too.

Then along comes Wikipedia.  Wikipedia doesn't pre-suppose that the content will be right when it's published ... but instead relies on people fixing it after the fact.  It includes the simple rationale that sometimes we're wrong, and then we're educated, and then we're as right as the people who were right from the beginning.  It doesn't matter that we were wrong before - that's in the past and it's meaningless.  What matters is what we believe now.

This is one of the reasons I'm not worried about saying something today that disagrees with something I said three years ago.  So what?  We're all wrong about things.  There's a whole archive about getting lyrics wrong.  We go our little way, we think we're right - heck, we're even so damn sure we argue with other people and shout them down because damn it, we know.  Then we find out we didn't, and we're a bit sheeping, and we move on.

Having an opinion does not mean that for the rest of your life you must be shackled to that opinion.  That might perhaps be a reason why people are unwilling to change - because they'll still have to pay the price for being wrong anyway.  Right up to my mother's death she continued to believe that the basement window got busted because I was playing ball in the backyard - though I told her that I'd kicked in it when I was 15 because I was locked out and I needed the report that I'd left on my bed if I didn't want to fail 10th grade Biology.  Even though I told her, my mother had been telling herself the other story for so long that the next time that window came up, she still believed it was a baseball.  (It all seems so silly anyway.  So what if I had failed that class?  It's hard now even to imagine why I was so desperate, but I was 15 and full of hormones).

We think a group of thoughts, then the world changes, and we change, and we think different thoughts, and some of those different thoughts are going to be captured in blog posts we wrote years ago.  Who the hell knows what I will think ten years from now.  All I can be sure of is that I'll have reason to believe the things I'll believe then, that I don't believe now.

I tell the reader; it doesn't matter what you've done, or what you've failed at, or what you believed.  It matters what you do going forward.  Yes, you'll make mistakes; but the internet offers changes to those mistakes, just like wikipedia, and once the changes are made, it won't matter what the page used to say.

The only thing that will matter is what you believe now.

1 comment:

Anaxe Vars said...

In this vein it has always confounded me that people get upset when a politician changes his stance on a subject after ten years in office. As if adhering to our principles despite changing evidence and experience to the contrary is a desire able quality.