digital rhetoric

More on Britannica's Web 2.0 debate

A continuing conversation on Britannica’s blog about Web 2.0. At this point, it’s basically Michael Gorman (former president of ALA) and Andrew Keen (author of the Cult of the Amateur) vs. Clay Shirky (of Many-to-Many and points beyond).

Here is where I totally agree with Gorman:

Let me be clear at the outset, the Internet in particular and the
digital resources available to us in general are ineluctable forces
that are shaping our lives, in many ways for the better.
We cannot turn away from these forces, nor should we.  But we must
exercise judgment, use digital resources intelligently, and import into
the digital world the values that have pervaded scholarship in Western
societies for many centuries.

We may disagree over how that "importing" will happen and what it might mean. Though I think we have some decent range of agreement there.

Both Gorman and Keen seem to object to what they characterize as a
utopianist faith in technology that they assign rather broadly to those
who oppose them. As I understand their argument, and what Gorman means
to suggest by import of values mentioned above, is that the traditional
hierarchical structures of our print culture in terms of expertise,
authority/authorship, and professional organized knowledge (remember
Gorman is a librarian) need to be reasserted in the digital network. As
such, they are not opposed to the digitization of information so much
as they oppose the democratic participation of citizens in the
production and sharing of information.

As Keen writes, "The Internet is a magnificent invention if it can
be harnessed to traditional epistemological and pedagogical practices.
And if not? Then we are on the brink of the counter-information age."
Yes, it is a new Dark Age! The barbarians are at the gate!

The example that has been used repeatedly in this debate is the
cultural support of intelligent design. Allowing everyday citizens into
the debate means making intelligent design mingle with the "real
science" of evolution. Now I’m not a supporter of intelligent design,
but if you believe it isn’t already mingling with evolution in our
culture, then you’re far more naive than summon who thinks the Internet
will save humanity (if such a person exists). Furthermore, the
supporters of intelligent design would likely be the first to agree
with Gorman and Keen; they are all cultural conservatives after all.
The only difference is that they disagree over who the expert is, the
scientists or the Bible.

In fact, this is obviously the problem with the Gorman-Keen postion. Who is the expert?

  • the foreign policy "experts" at the White House
  • the nutrition "experts" at McDonald’s
  • the health "experts" at Philip Morris
  • and so on

The Internet does not solve the problem of who is the expert. And as
Gorman rightly points out, there is a difference between
information/data and knowledge (or even better, wisdom). But this is
not a problem that is created by the Web, though the technology has redefined the problem in significant ways.

Here’s the bottom line:

  • I’m never going to trust you just because you’re you. I don’t
    care what alphabet soup follows your name, that you won the Nobel
    prize, that you’ve a list of publications longer than your arm. I don’t
    care. I don’t care if I’m reading your text within the covers of an
    award-winning book, in the NY Times, or on your MySpace page. You have to convince me.
  • I’m never, never, never, never, never going to pay for
    information that I don’t need when I can get the information I do need
    for free. In other words, as far as I’m concerned, Britannica might as
    well fold up its tents right now. Cynically, I see Gorman and Keen as
    making a self-serving argument of their own importance as experts.
    Honestly, they aren’t making an argument that I haven’t seen 100 times

    before from my students and others. Their metaphors and references
    might be more sophisticated but their argument is trite.

  • Gorman writes, "More solid and reputable websites are buried by the
    current algorithms of the Internet
    because they are often fee-based and cannot garner as many links as
    free sites (links are key to boosting one’s search engine rank).  The
    true challenge for businesses, search engines, schools, and publishers
    is discovering how to tap into and exploit this source of reputable and
    reliable information." This is somewhat backwards to me. It seems to me
    that if you have a website that wants to be heard, you need to figure
    out how to get yourself heard.

As I’ve said before and will say again (right now). Our task is to
continue to study how digital media networks function to produce and
share information and study how people use that information to create
knowledge. From this study we will continue to develop practices that
improve the production, sharing, and use of information. In doing so,
we would be foolish to ignore what we might learn from past practices
but we would be equally foolish to imagine that the past contains all
the answers to our current problems, that would truly be a new Dark Age!


2 replies on “More on Britannica's Web 2.0 debate”

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