digital rhetoric

port authority

Authority and expertise in a networked culture… it’s not a new problem. "Wisdom of the crowd"/ collective intelligence vs. individual genius? Sifting through all the dross, all the ideology, all the self-promotion, and all the poorly composed media.

Yes, all that. My students are talking about it as we read Dan Gillmor’s We the Media. But I’m also picking up on a conversation from Will Richardson and over on the Britannica Blog (raise your hand if you’re surprised about skepticism regarding Web 2.0 on the "Britannica Blog").

Undoubtedly one of the major challenges as we move into a networked media culture is negotiating the avalanche of information that we must deal with. Some of that information is important only in a short-term and personal context, like a text message or phone call. Much of the information we deal with is only valuable in the narrow context of family, friends, or colleagues. Other media relates to particular personal or professional interests/concerns. Still more is of a broader cultural but short term value, like daily news. Only a relatively small portion of information we deal with is valuable in a broad, cultural context and reasonably long-term. It’s this last type of knowledge that is really at stake in this debate at Britannica. And while it’s nice to be able to look up what meerkats eat when my daughter asks me (they’re mostly insectivores, btw), that type of knowledge is not useful in my finding out what I need to buy at the store or where I can get the cheapest flight to my next conference or even what books I might want to consider ordering for my courses next semester.

It’s true that some of the information of professional interest to
me comes in the form of professionally vetted and edited media (online
or print). However, a lot of doesn’t, and in many cases, I learn about
the books I read from reading blogs or Amazon reviews and so on. Of
course I don’t believe everything I read. If I believed everything I
read in the Britannica encylopedias in our college library, I’d think
the World Trade Center was still standing.

On Britannica blog, Michael Gorman summarizes his positions by
saying "the intellectual life of our society must continue to be based
respect for expertise, the scientific method, evidence-based texts,
and, above all, the value of the individual scholar, author, and
creator of knowledge." I would agree with the first part of this
sentence. To the second part, I have to ask "exactly how many
‘scientific-method, evidence-based’ journal articles have you read by
an ‘individual author’?" There’s really no such thing. There is no
clearer evidence for the importance of collaborative knowledge
production than the work done by scientists (even though obviously
separate labs compete with one another).

Honestly, I think the title of Gorman’s post ("Web 2.0: The Sleep of
Reason") is a little misleading, or otherwise he doesn’t understand the
nature of the problem he’s trying to investigate (I tend to think it’s
the former). Spend a day watching television or listening to talk radio
or perusing popular magazines at the local bookstore and one will not
likely come away concluding that "reason" is wide awake in these media.
Same is true for books. And I like this data from Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail
(pg. 121) and the Book Industry Study Group: of the 1.2 million titles
sold in 2004, about 950,000 sold 99 or fewer copies. Now maybe there
are some hidden gems in there, and no doubt one might consider some of
the bestsellers to be less than stellar. But I’m going to guess that
just b/c something is in print doesn’t mean that it’s shoring up the
foundations of Western Civilization.

As Gorman himself suggests elsewhere in his discussion, the issue

here isn’t really the technology but how we will manage to use the
technology to produce verifiable and useful knowledge. He is clearly
concerned by what he imagines to be a free for all (and in many ways it
is a free for all). He wants to apply, somehow, the vetting processes
of our (now past) print culture, to continue to venerate the
"individual author."

There are multiple problems with that approach:

  1. The "individual author" is a marketplace fiction and perhaps a
    necessary one, but it has always failed to account fully for the
    networked practices, discourse communities, and
    cultural/material/technological contexts of composition. Reifying the
    individual author will not help us understand how information is
    produced and disseminated along networks, nor will it help us figure
    out how to evaluate, manage, or use that information.
  2. There must be some serious nostalgia-induced amnesia about the
    20th-century to imagine that some ideal model for authorship lies in
    the past. Talk about ubi sunt. (Don’t know what that is? You can sign up for a membership at Britannica and read about it here. Or you can shell out a couple hundred bucks for a course on medieval literature. Or maybe buy a book from Amazon about it. Or just read about it for free, right now, on Wikipedia,
    on an entry that is accurate and offers a reference.) Do we really
    imagine that the general population of Americans were better educated
    in 1950 or 1970 than they are now? That they had better access to
    information than they do now?  Gorman complains about how the general
    relativism of knowledge and decline of verfiable authority allows for
    things like intelligent design, but does he imagine that textbooks in
    the 50s were less ideological b/c such relativism wasn’t as prevalent?
  3. Part of this comes from our medieval university model which emerges
    from the trauma of the Dark Ages. Those early Oxbridge types conceived
    of the ancients as knowing more about the world than they did, that the
    world was following apart on its way to apocalypse, and that in many
    ways their task was to preserve and/or recover past knowledge. The
    networked culture will be a place where the production of new knowledge
    will be more greatly valued. This has obviously been the case
    throughout the information age, and in some respects the university has
    struggled throughout this period.

Obviously we require skepticism about all media, Web 2.0  and
otherwise. Our task is to understand better how this information is
produced so that we can devise new social and rhetorical relations to
take advantage of our new conditions. We need to learn how to port the
concept of authority in a productive way into networked culture. 


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