My new book is launched in paperback: Here are some quotes

I am announcing that my book is now available on Amazon in paperback. Please show your appreciation for this blog (and my other attempts to enlighten the world) by buying it!

Here: Essays on Free Knowledge: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge, Sanger Press (my own imprint), ISBN 978-1-7357954-1-6. 12 essays. 270 pages. $18.75 for the paperback. The ebook version is best purchased on Gumroad ($9.95), but it is now available on Amazon as well (same price). I will make an audiobook version if there is much demand. So far about four people have requested an audiobook version. If the number of requests goes over ten, I guess I will make an audiobook.

Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary in January, but as I explain in this collection of essays, it began by organizing a decentralized, global community to catalog their knowledge neutrally, with minimal rules. The results were amazing, sparking debates about whether amateurs really could declare "what we all know" and whether all this free knowledge could replace memorization. A decade later, as control of knowledge has become more centralized and closed, I ask: should we decentralize knowledge once again, and if so, how?

What do you get? In addition to front and end matter (including a full index), these twelve essays, which I include with some perhaps representative quotes:

The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir

The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. Finally, the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Two Early Articles about Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s content is useful, and so people are starting to link to it. Google and other search engines have already discovered Wikipedia and the daily traffic they send to the project produces a steady stream of new readers and participants. The greater the number of Wikipedia articles, the greater the number of links to them, and therefore the higher the rankings and numbers of listings on Google. As they say, “the rich get richer.” So it is far from inconceivable that the rate of article-production will actually increase over the coming years—in fact, this seems rather likely.

But why all this activity and interest? Surely that is puzzling. Wiki software must be the most promiscuous form of publishing there is—Wikipedia will take anything from anybody. So how is it possible that so many otherwise upstanding intellectuals love Wikipedia (some, secretly) and spend so much time on it? Why are we not writing for academic journals, or something?

Wikipedia's Original Neutrality Policy

Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. This is easily misunderstood. The policy does not assume that it is possible to write an article from just one point of view, which would be the one neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.

Why Neutrality?

To ... put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves. ...

When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

There is a deeper problem—I, at least, think so—which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise are tolerated).

How the Internet Is Changing What (We Think) We Know

[T]he superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. ... [F]or all the terabytes upon terabytes of information on the Internet, society does not employ many more (and possibly fewer) editors than it had before the advent of the Internet. When you go to post something on a blog or a web forum, there is no one called an editor who decides to “publish” your comment. The Internet is less a publishing operation than a giant conversation. But most of us still take in most of what we read fairly passively. Now, there is no doubt that what has been called the “read-write web” encourages active engagement with others online, and helps us overcome our passivity. This is one of the decidedly positive things about the Internet, I think: it gets people to understand that they can actively engage with what they read. We understand now more than ever that we can and should read critically. The problem, however, is that, without the services of editors, we need our critical faculties to be engaged and very fine-tuned. While the Internet conversation has made it necessary for us to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we cannot help it.

Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge

[T]he public deserves a seat at the table it did not have throughout most of history. Wikipedia’s tremendous usefulness shows the wisdom of that policy. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It is Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I am on the side of Truth.

Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age

The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.

Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?

The more that people have these various [anti-intellectual] attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think. The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he will actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy. Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes—no doubt already has become—a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding. We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people all but vanishing.

But is this not just a problem for geekdom? Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals? The question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large. One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing. The digital world is the vanguard, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among the geeks of yesteryear are now mainstream. Geek anti-intellectualism is another example.

Introducing the Encyclosphere

A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world’s largest collection of knowledge.

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.

Declaration of Digital Independence

We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly.

The Future of the Free Internet

Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now.

Buy it!


Essays on Free Knowledge (book)

New book: Essays on Free Knowledge

I published my first book this morning. The current cost is $9.95. It is a 270-page ebook, first published on Gumroad, where I'll get a higher percentage. A paperback should arrive in about a month on Amazon if I don't get distracted by other things.

Buy via the embedded ad below, and after that, I'll have a few notes for my regular blog readers.




I first had the idea of making a collection like this over ten years ago. I decided to do it now because I was thinking of combining fundraising for the Encyclosphere with a course. But to get publicity for a course, I thought it would be good first to remind folks of my writings (and qualifications) to teach something like this. A book would help publicize both the Encyclosphere and the course. I also thought if I were going to keep plugging away at my (time-consuming) consulting business, a book would help spread the word for that as well (although I have had more business than I have had time for). Finally, the fact that Wikipedia is going to have its 20th anniversary this coming January means the book should have a better audience than it would otherwise.

I hope you will get your hands on it (or rather, get it on your handheld) soon, but I will have a paperback available hopefully in about a month, if that is more your style.


Wikipedia Is Badly Biased

The Uncyclopedia logo. Maybe more appropriate for Wikipedia itself now.

Wikipedia's "NPOV" is dead.((The misbegotten phrase "neutral point of view" is a Jimmy Wales coinage I never supported. If a text is neutral with regard to an issue, it lacks any "point of view" with regard to the issue; it does not take a "neutral point of view." My preferred phrase was always "the neutrality policy" or "the nonbias policy.")) The original policy long since forgotten, Wikipedia no longer has an effective neutrality policy. There is a rewritten policy, but it endorses the utterly bankrupt canard that journalists should avoid what they call "false balance."((On this, see my "Why Neutrality?", published 2015 by Ballotpedia.)) The notion that we should avoid "false balance" is directly contradictory to the original neutrality policy. As a result, even as journalists turn to opinion and activism, Wikipedia now touts controversial points of view on politics, religion, and science. Here are some examples from each of these subjects, which were easy to find, no hunting around. Many, many more could be given.

Wikipedia's favorite president?

Examples have become embarrassingly easy to find. The Barack Obama article completely fails to mention many well-known scandals: Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the AP phone records scandal, and Fast and Furious, to say nothing of Solyndra or the Hillary Clinton email server scandal—or, of course, the developing "Obamagate" story in which Obama was personally involved in surveilling Donald Trump. A fair article about a major political figure certainly must include the bad with the good. The only scandals that I could find that were mentioned were a few that the left finds at least a little scandalous, such as Snowden's revelations about NSA activities under Obama. In short, the article is almost a total whitewash. You might find this to be objectively correct; but you cannot claim that this is a neutral treatment, considering that the other major U.S. party would treat the subject very differently. On such a topic, neutrality in any sense worth the name essentially requires that readers not be able to detect the editors' political alignment.

Not Wikipedia's favorite president

Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the idea that the Donald Trump article is neutral is a joke. Just for example, there are 5,224 none-too-flattering words in the "Presidency" section. By contrast, the following "Public Profile" (which the Obama article entirely lacks), "Investigations," and "Impeachment" sections are unrelentingly negative, and together add up to some 4,545 words—in other words, the controversy sections are almost as long as the sections about his presidency. Common words in the article are "false" and "falsely" (46 instances): Wikipedia frequently asserts, in its own voice, that many of Trump's statements are "false." Well, perhaps they are. But even if they are, it is not exactly neutral for an encyclopedia article to say so, especially without attribution. You might approve of Wikipedia describing Trump's incorrect statements as "false," very well; but then you must admit that you no longer support a policy of neutrality on Wikipedia.

I leave the glowing Hillary Clinton article as an exercise for the reader.

On political topics it is easiest to argue for the profound benefits—even the moral necessity—of eliminating bias in reference works. As I argue in my 2015 essay, "Why Neutrality," we naturally desire neutrality on political and many other topics because we want to be left free to make up our own minds. Reference, news, and educational resources aimed at laying out a subject in general should give us the tools we need to rationally decide what we want to think. Only those who want to force the minds of others can be opposed to neutrality.

"Prior to prohibition, cannabis was available freely in a variety of forms," says Wikipedia, helpfully.

Wikipedia can be counted on to cover not just political figures, but political issues as well from a liberal-left point of view. No conservative would write, in an abortion article, "When properly done, abortion is one of the safest procedures in medicine," a claim that is questionable on its face, considering what an invasive, psychologically distressing, and sometimes lengthy procedure it can be even when done according to modern medical practices. More to the point, abortion opponents consider the fetus to be a human being with rights; their view, that it is not safe for the baby, is utterly ignored. To pick another, random issue, drug legalization, dubbed drug liberalization by Wikipedia, has only a little information about any potential hazards of drug legalization policies; it mostly serves as a brief for legalization, followed by a catalog of drug policies worldwide. Or to take an up-to-the-minute issue, the LGBT adoption article includes several talking points in favor of LGBT adoption rights, but omits any arguments against. On all such issues, the point is that true neutrality, to be carefully distinguished from objectivity, requires that the article be written in a way that makes it impossible to determine the editors' position on the important controversies the article touches on.

Gospel reliability is "uncertain," Wikipedia says, neutrally.

What about articles on religious topics? The first article I thought to look at had some pretty egregious instances of bias: the Jesus article. It simply asserts, again in its own voice, that "the quest for the historical Jesus has yielded major uncertainty on the historical reliability of the Gospels and on how closely the Jesus portrayed in the Bible reflects the historical Jesus." In another place, the article simply asserts, "the gospels are not independent nor consistent records of Jesus' life." A great many Christians would take issue with such statements, which means it is not neutral for that reason—in other words, the very fact that most Christians believe in the historical reliability of the Gospels, and that they are wholly consistent, means that the article is biased if it simply asserts, without attribution or qualification, that this is a matter of "major uncertainty." In other respects, the article can be fairly described as a "liberal" academic discussion of Jesus, focusing especially on assorted difficulties and controversies, while failing to explain traditional or orthodox views of those issues. So it might be "academic," but what it is not is neutral, not in the original sense we defined for Wikipedia.

Of course, similarly tendentious claims can be found in other articles on religious topics, as when the Christ (title) article claims,

Although the original followers of Jesus believed Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, e.g. in the Confession of Peter, Jesus was usually referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Jesus, son of Joseph".[11] Jesus came to be called "Jesus Christ" (meaning "Jesus the Khristós", i.e. "Jesus the Messiah" or "Jesus the Anointed") by later Christians, who believe that his crucifixion and resurrection fulfill the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

This article weirdly claims, or implies, a thing that no serious Biblical scholar of any sort would claim, viz., that Jesus was not given the title "Christ" by the original apostles in the New Testament. The Wikipedia article itself later contradicts that claim, so perhaps the editors of the above paragraph simply meant the two conjoined words "Jesus Christ," and that Jesus was rarely referred two with those two conjoined words in the New Testament. But this is false, too: the two words are found together in that form throughout the New Testament.

But the effect of the above-quoted paragraph is to cast doubt that the title "Christ" was used much at all by the original apostles and disciples. That would be silly if so. These supposed "later Christians" who used "Christ" would have to include the apostles Peter (Jesus' first apostle), Paul (converted a few years after Jesus' crucifixion), and Jude (Jesus' brother), who were the authors of the bulk of the epistles of the New Testament. The word "Christ" can, of course, be found frequently in the epistles, including very early epistles, thought to be the first texts written about Jesus.((Both in the form "Jesus Christ" (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1) and in the form "Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians 1:2). "Christ" is found throughout three epistles widely held to be among the first written, including Galatian and 1 Thessalonians, and twice in James.)) Of course, those are not exactly "later Christians." If the claim is simply that the word "Christ" does not appear at all or much in the Gospels, that is false, as a simple text search uncovers dozens of instances in all four Gospels,((I mistakenly conceded this false point in an earlier draft of this article, after not searching enough. Nominative Χριστόν, accusative Χριστόν, and genitive Χριστοῦ can be found throughout.)) and about 550 instances in the entire New Testament. If it is used somewhat less in the Gospels, that would be a reflection of the fact that the authors of the Gospels were, argumentatively, using "Messiah" to persuade that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish messiah. But the word means much the same as "Christ": the anointed one, God's chosen. So, in any event, the basic claim here is simply false. He is called "Jesus Christ" (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) in the very first verse of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1) and in the first verse of the gospel sometimes thought to be the first-written, Mark (1:1), as well.((If you look at the footnote Wikipedia cites in support of its weird claim, you will find a sensible and not-misleading article by Britannica, the context of which makes it perfectly clear that the authors were not making any claim about the use of the title "Christ" but instead the two-word combination "Jesus Christ," as applied directly to Jesus in his own lifetime. It seems likely that that two-word name was used rarely, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with his having the title "Christ," but a reflection of the fact that "Ancient Jews usually had only one name, and, when greater specificity was needed, it was customary to add the father’s name or the place of origin." Wikipedians may have missed that bit.))

Clearly, Wikipedia's claims are tendentious if not false, and represent a point of view that many if not most Christians would rightly dispute.

It may seem more problematic to speak of the bias of scientific articles, because many people do not want to see "unscientific" views covered in encyclopedia articles. If such articles are "biased in favor of science," some people naturally find that to be a feature, not a bug. The problem, though, is that scientists sometimes do not agree on which theories are and are not scientific. On such issues, the "scientific point of view" and the "objective point of view" according to the Establishment might be very much opposed to neutrality. So when the Establishment seems unified on a certain view of a scientific controversy, then that is the view that is taken for granted, and often aggressively asserted, by Wikipedia.

Neutral information, representing a scientific consensus with no dissent, I'm sure.

The global warming and MMR vaccine articles are examples; I hardly need to dive into these pages, since it is quite enough to say that they endorse definite positions that scientific minorities reject. Another example is how Wikipedia treats various topics in alternative medicine—often dismissively, and frequently labeled as "pseudoscience" in Wikipedia's own voice. Indeed, Wikipedia defines the very term as follows: "Alternative medicine describes any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine, but which lacks biological plausibility and is untested, untestable or proven ineffective." In all these cases, genuine neutrality requires a different sort of treatment.

Again, other examples could be found, in no doubt thousands of other, perfectly unexciting topics. These are just the first topics that came to mind, associated as they are with the culture wars, and their articles on those topics put Wikipedia very decidedly on one side of that war. You should not be able to say that about an encyclopedia that claims to be neutral.

It is time for Wikipedia to come clean and admit that it has abandoned NPOV (i.e., neutrality as a policy). At the very least they should admit that that they have redefined the term in a way that makes it utterly incompatible with its original notion of neutrality, which is the ordinary and common one.((That it was Wikipedia's original notion, see the Nupedia "Lack of Bias" policy, which was the source of Wikipedia's policy, and see also my final (2001) version of the Wikipedia neutrality policy. Read my "Why Neutrality?" for a lengthy discussion of this notion.)) It might be better to embrace a "credibility" policy and admit that their notion of what is credible does, in fact, bias them against conservatism, traditional religiosity, and minority perspectives on science and medicine—to say nothing of many other topics on which Wikipedia has biases.

Of course, Wikipedians are unlikely to make any such change; they live in a fantasy world of their own making.((UPDATE: In an earlier version of this blog post, I included some screenshots of Wikipedia Alexa rankings, showing a drop from 5 to 12 or 13. While this is perfectly accurate, the traffic to the site has been more or less flat for years, until the last few months, in which traffic spiked probably because of the Covid-19 virus. But since the drop in Alexa rankings do not seem to reflect a drop in traffic, I decided to remove the screenshots and a couple accompanying sentences.))

The world would be better served by an independent and decentralized encyclopedia network, such as I proposed with the Encyclosphere. We will certainly develop such a network, but if it is to remain fully independent of all governmental and big corporate interests, funds are naturally scarce and it will take time.



Why I quit Quora and Medium for good

It's not a temporary rage-quit; I've deleted both accounts. I have zero followers, no content, and no username. I'm outta there.

This is going to be more interesting than it sounds, I promise.

When I first joined Quora in 2011, I loved it, with a few small reservations. Then, after some run-ins with what I regarded as unreasonable moderation, I started to dislike it; I even temporarily quit in 2015. Then the events of 2018 gave me a new perspective on social media in general. I re-evaluated Quora again, and found it wanting. So I deleted my account today, for good. All my followers and articles are gone.

I went through a similar process with Medium two weeks ago.

Why? Glad you asked.

Digital sharecropping

Until maybe 2012 or so, if you had asked me, I would have said that I am a confirmed and fairly strict open source/open content/open data guy, and the idea of people happily developing content, without a financial or ownership stake, to benefit a for-profit enterprise had always bothered me. It bothered me in 2000 when Jimmy Wales said the job he hired me for—to start a new encyclopedia—would involve asking volunteers to developed free content hosted by a for-profit company (Bomis). I was happy when, in 2003, the Bomis principals gave Wikipedia to a non-profit.

(Ironically, not to mention stupidly, in 2011 Jimmy Wales tried to blame me for Bomis' original for-profit, ad-based business model. Unfortunately for his lie, I was able to find evidence that, in fact, it had been his idea.)

In 2006, technology journalist Nicholas Carr coined the phrase "digital sharecropping", saying that "Web 2.0,"

by putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few.

This bothers me. I'm a libertarian and I support capitalism, but the moral recommendability of building a business on the shoulders of well-meaning volunteers and people merely looking to socialize online struck me, as it did Carr, as very questionable. I even remember writing an old blog post (can't find it anymore) in which I argued, only half-seriously, that this practice is really indefensible, particularly if users don't have a governance stake.

The moral recommendability of building a business on the shoulders of well-meaning volunteers and people merely looking to socialize online struck me as very questionable.

The rise of social media, and joining Quora and Medium

By 2010, despite having been an active Internet user for over 15 years, my perspective started changing. I didn't really begrudge Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube their profits anymore. The old argument that they are providing a useful service that deserves compensation—while still a bit questionable to me—made some sense. As to the rather obvious privacy worries, at that stage they were mainly just worries. Sure, I knew (as we all did) that we were trusting Facebook with relatively sensitive data. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. (That sure changed.)

If you were plugged in back then, you regularly joined new communities that seemed interesting and happening. Quora was one; I joined it in 2011. It struck me as a somewhat modernized version of the old discussion communities we had in the 1990s—Usenet and mailing lists—but, in some ways, even better. There was very lightweight moderation, which actually seemed to work. A few years later I joined Medium, and as with Quora, I don't think I ever heard from their moderators in the first few years. If I did, I was willing to admit that maybe I had put a toe over the line.

Within a few days, Quora actually posted a question for me to answer: "What does Larry Sanger think about Quora?" Here is my answer in full (which I've deleted from Quora along with all my other answers):

Uhh...I didn't ask this.  It's a bit like fishing for compliments, eh Quora team? But that's OK, I am happy to compliment Quora on making a very interesting, engaging website.

Quora is pretty interesting. It appeals to me because there are a lot of people here earnestly reflecting--this I think must be partly due to good habits started by the first participants, but also because the question + multiple competing answers that mostly do not respond to each other means there is more opportunity for straightforward reflection and less for the usual bickering that happens in most Internet communities.

A long time ago (I'm sure one could find this online somewhere, if one looked hard enough) I was musing that it's odd that mailing lists are not used in more ways than they are. It seemed to me that one could use mailing list software to play all sorts of "conversation games," and I didn't know why people didn't set up different sorts of rule systems for different kinds of games.

What impresses me about Quora is that it seems to be a completely new species of conversation game.  Perhaps it's not entirely new, because it's somewhat similar to Yahoo! Answers, but there aren't as many yahoos on Quora, for whatever reason, and other differences are important.  Quora's model simply works better.  Quora users care about quality, and being deep, and Yahoo! Answerers generally do not.  I wonder why that is.

But unlike Yahoo! Answers, Quora doesn't seem to be used very much for getting factual information. Quora users are more interested in opinionizing about broad, often philosophical questions, which I find charming and refreshing. But for this reason, it's not really a competitor of Wikipedia or Yahoo! Answers (or Citizendium...). It's competing with forums.

I think it needs some more organizational tools, tools that make it less likely that good questions and answers aren't simply forgotten or lost track of. Or maybe there already are such tools and I don't know about them.

As I re-read this, some points have taken on a new meaning. I chalked up Quora's failure to provide more robust search tools to it being at a relatively early stage (it was started in two years earlier by a former Facebook CTO), and the ordinary sort of founder stubbornness, in which the founders have a vision of how a web app should work, and as a result don't give the people what they actually want. I see now that they had already started to execute a new approach to running a website that I just didn't recognize at the time. It was (and is) very deliberately heavy-handed and top-down, like Facebook. They let you see what they want you to see. They try to "tailor" the user experience. And clearly, they do this not to satisfy explicit user preferences. They don't care much about user autonomy. Their aim is apparently to keep users on the site, to keep them adding content. If you choose to join, you become a part of their well-oiled, centrally managed machine.

Quora and Medium, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, make it really hard for you to use their sites on your own terms, with your own preferences. You're led by the hand and kept inside the rails. Before around 2008, nobody could imagine making a website like that. Well, they existed, but they were for children and corporations.

I could see this, of course. But all the big social media sites were the same way. I guess I tolerated what looked like an inevitable takeover of the once-decentralized Internet by a more corporate mindset. I suppose I hoped that this mindset wouldn't simply ruin things. By 2012, I was already deeply suspicious of how things were turning out.

But now it's just blindingly obvious to me that the Silicon Valley elite have ruined the Internet.

Increasingly heavy-handed and ideological "moderation"

Maybe the first or second times I heard from Quora's moderation team, I was merely annoyed, but I still respected their attempts to keep everything polite. I thought that was probably all it was. That's what moderation used to be, anyway, back when we did it in the 90s and 00s. But I noticed that Quora's moderation was done in-house. That struck me as being, well, a little funny. There was something definitely off about it. Why didn't they set some rules and set up a fair system in which the community effectively self-moderated? They obviously had decent coders and designers who could craft a good community moderation system. But they didn't...

I see now only too well that the reason was that they wanted moderation to be kept in house, and not just because it was important to get right; it was because they wanted to exert editorial control. At first, it seemed that they had business reasons for this, which I thought was OK, maybe. But as time went on and as I got more moderation notices for perfectly fair questions and polite comments, it became clear that Quora's moderation practices weren't guided merely by the desire to keep the community pleasant for a wide cross-section of contributors. They were clearly enforcing ideological conformity. This got steadily worse and worse, in my experience, until I temporarily quit Quora in 2015, and I never did contribute as much after that.

Similarly, Medium's moderators rarely if ever bothered me, until they took down a rather harsh comment I made to a pedophile who was defending pedophilia. (He was complaining about an article I wrote explaining why pedophilia is wrong. I also wrote an article about why murder is wrong.) I hadn't been sufficiently polite to the pedophile, it seems. So, with only the slenderest explanations, Medium simply removed my comment. That's what caused me to delete my Medium account.

They don't care much about user autonomy. Their aim is apparently to keep users on the site, to keep them adding content. If you choose to join, you become a part of their well-oiled, centrally managed machine.

You don't have to agree with my politics to agree that there is a problem here. My objection is not just about fairness; it's about control. It's about the audacity of a company, which is profiting from my unpaid content, also presuming to control me, and often without explaining their rather stupid decisions. It's also not about the necessity of moderation. I've been a moderator many times in the last 25 years, and frankly, Internet communities suck if they don't have some sort of moderation mechanism. But when they start moderating in what seems to be an arbitrary and ideological way, when it's done in-house in a wholly opaque way, that's just not right. Bad moderation used to kill groups. People would leave badly-moderated groups in droves.

Lack of intellectual diversity in the community

Being on the web and not artificially restricted by nationality, Quora and Medium do, of course, a global user base. But they are single communities. And they're huge; they're both in the top 250. So whatever answer most users vote up (as filtered by Quora's secret and ever-changing sorting algorithm), and whoever is most popular with other Quora voters, tends to be shown higher.

Unsurprisingly—this was plainly evident back in 2011—Quora's community is left-leaning. Medium is similar. That's because, on average, intellectual Internet writers are left-leaning. I didn't really have a problem with that, and I wouldn't still, if we hadn't gotten absolutely stunning and clear evidence in 2018 that multiple large Internet corporations openly and unashamedly use their platforms to put their thumbs on the scales. They simply can't be trusted as fair, unbiased moderators, particularly when their answer ranking algorithms and the moderation policies and practices are so opaque.

In addition, a company like Quora should notice that different cultures have totally different ways of answering life's big questions. The differences are fascinating, too. By lumping us all together, regardless of nationality, religion, politics, gender, and other features, we actually miss out on the full variety of human experience. If the Quora community's dominant views aren't copacetic to you, you'll mostly find yourself in the cold, badly represented and hard to find.

Silicon Valley, your experiment is over

Look. Quora, like Medium, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others, have been outed as shamelessly self-dealing corporations. It's gone way beyond "digital sharecropping." The problem I and many others have with these companies isn't just that they are profiting from our unpaid contributions. It's that they have become ridiculously arrogant and think they can attempt to control and restrict our user experience and our right to speak our minds under fair, reasonable, and transparent moderation systems. And while the privacy issues that Quora or Medium have aren't as profound as for Facebook, they are there, and they come from the same controlling corporate mindset.

So that's why I've quit Quora and Medium for good. I hope that also sheds more light on why I'm leaving Facebook and changing how I use Twitter.

As if to confirm me in my decision, Quora doesn't supply any tools for exporting all your answers from the site. You have to use third-party tools (I used this). And after I deleted my account (which I did just now), I noticed that my account page and all my answers were still there. The bastards force you to accept a two-week "grace period," in case you change your mind. What if I don't want them to show my content anymore, now? Too bad. You have to let them continue to earn money from your content for two more weeks.

Clearly, they aren't serving you; you're serving them.

We've been in an experiment. Many of us were willing to let Internet communities be centralized in the hands of big Silicon Valley corporations. Maybe it'll be OK, we thought. Maybe the concentration of money and power will result in some really cool new stuff that the older, more decentralized Internet couldn't deliver. Maybe they won't mess it up, and try to exert too much control, and abuse our privacy. Sure! Maybe!

The experiment was a failure. We can't trust big companies, working for their own profit, to make good decisions for large, online communities. The entire industry has earned and richly deserves our distrust and indignation.

So, back to the drawing board. Maybe we'll do better with the next, more robustly decentralized and democratic phase of the Internet: blockchain.

We'll get this right eventually, or die trying. After all, it might take a while.

We've been in an experiment. Many of us were willing to let Internet communities be centralized in the hands of big Silicon Valley corporations. Maybe it'll be OK, we thought. ... The experiment was a failure.


A plea for protocols

The antidote to the abuses of big tech is the very thing that gave birth to the Internet itself: decentralized, neutral technical protocols.

  1. The thought that inspires
    my work.
    Ever since I started
    work on Nupedia and then Wikipedia, a thought has always
    inspired me: just imagine the stunning possibilities when people
    come together as individuals to share their knowledge, to create
    something much greater than any of them could achieve individually.

  2. The sharing economy. There
    is a general phrase describing this sort of laudable activity: the
    “sharing economy.” The motivations and rewards are different
    when we work to benefit everyone indiscriminately. It worked well
    when Linux and OSS were first developed; then it worked just as well
    with Wikipedia.

  3. The Internet itself is an
    instance of the sharing economy.
    The Internet—its ease of
    communication and publishing together with its decentralized
    nature—is precisely what has made this possible. The Internet is a
    decentralized network of people working together freely, for mutual
    benefit.

  4. The Internet giants have
    abused the sharing economy.
    About ten years ago, this all
    started to change. More and more our sharing behavior has been
    diverted into massive private networks, like Facebook, Twitter, and
    YouTube, that have exerted control and treated contributors as the
    product.

  5. Facebook’s contempt for
    our privacy.
    All you want to do is easily share a picture with
    your family. At first, we thought Facebook’s handling of our
    private data would just be the price we had pay for a really
    powerful and useful service. But over and over, Facebook has shown
    utter contempt for our privacy, and it has recently started
    censoring more and more groups based on their viewpoints. We don’t
    know where this will end.

  6. This aggression will not
    stand, man
    . We need to learn from the success of
    decentralized projects like Linux, open source software, Wikipedia,
    and the neutral technical protocols that define the Internet itself,
    that we don’t have to subject
    ourselves to the tender mercies of the Internet giants.

  7. How.
    How? Just
    think. The Internet is made up of a network of computers that work
    according to communication rules that they have all agreed on. These
    communication rules are called protocols and
    standards.

  8. Protocols
    and standards...
    There
    are protocols and standards
    for transferring
    and displaying
    web pages, for email, for transferring files, and for all the many
    different technologies
    involved.

  9. ...which
    are
    neutral.These
    different standards are neutral. They explicitly don’t care what
    sort of content they carry, and they don’t benefit any person or
    group over another.

  10. We need more
    knowledge-sharing protocols.
    So here’s the thought I want to
    leave you with. You evidently support knowledge sharing, since
    you’re giving people awards for it. Knowledge sharing is so easy
    online precisely because of those neutral technical protocols.
    So—why don’t we invent many, many more neutral Internet
    protocols for the sharing of knowledge?

  11. Blockchain is awesome
    because it creates new technical protocols.
    Probably the biggest
    reason people are excited about blockchain is that it is a
    technology and a movement that gets rid of the need of the Internet
    giants. Blockchain is basically a technology that enables us to
    invent lots and lots of different protocols, for pretty much
    everything.

  12. Why
    not Twitter- and Facebook-like protocols?
    There
    can, and should, be a protocol for
    tweeting without Twitter.
    Why should we have to rely on one company and one website when we
    want to broadcast short messages to the world? That should be
    possible without
    Twitter. Similarly, when we want to share various other tidbits of
    personal information, we should be able to agree on a protocol to
    share
    that ourselves, under our
    own terms—without
    Facebook.

  13. Wikipedia centralizes,
    too.
    Although Wikipedia is an example of decentralized editing,
    it is still centralized in an important way. If you want to
    contribute to the world’s biggest collection of encyclopedia
    articles, you have no choice but to collaborate with, and negotiate
    with, Wikipedians. What if you can single-handedly write a better
    article than Wikipedia’s? Wikipedia offers you no way to get your
    work in front of its readers.

  14. Everipedia,
    an encyclopedia protocol.
    Again,
    there should be a neutral encyclopedia protocol,
    one that allows us to add
    encyclopedia articles
    to a shared database that its creators own and develop, just like
    the Internet itself. That’s why I’m working on Everipedia, which
    is building a blockchain encyclopedia.

This is a little speech I gave to the Rotary Club of Pasadena, in the beautiful Pasadena University Club, January 31, 2019.


Social media stupidifies and radicalizes us

Back when the buzzword switched from "Web 2.0" to "social media," I started to get quite suspicious. When I was participating in online communities, I wasn't propagating "media." That is something that boring corporate media types did.

What would those boring corporate media types, or rather their Silicon Valley equivalents, do with once-unconstrained, lively, frequently long-form debate communities? Make the conversations shorter, more vapid, more appealing to the masses, and more addictive. In short, more of a really dumb waste of time.

The Zucks and Dorseys of the world did this in order to hook people more and more. What they probably didn't realize at first is that they had built tools for stupidification and radicalization. I don't think "dumb down" is quite the right phrase: dumbing down means making something complex simpler, easier to understand, but also less accurate. To "stupidify" focuses on the effects on us; in social media mobs, we are truly stupid herd animals, and when enraged, rather frighteningly stupid mobs. What we are fed and say is dumbed down; consequently, we are stupidified.

That degraded quality of social relationship--that is these fools' legacy. I have no respect for what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey achieved. (This isn't a personal slam; I don't have that much respect for Wikipedia, either, which is something I built.)

If you had set out to reduce human Internet interactions to a subhuman, irrational, emotional level, an excellent strategy would be to replace long mailing list and Usenet newsgroup posts and rambling blog posts like this one with tweets (whether 140 or 280 characters--at that tiny length, it doesn't matter), propaganda memes, and emotion-driven comments that are cut short and sent by default if you try to write more than one paragraph.

To make the medium of social interaction briefer and more visual is to convey that intelligence, which is almost always long-form, is not valued. We live in a tl;dr world, the world that Zuck and Jack built. They must be very proud. If Marshall McLuhan was right that the medium is the message, social media's message is that your intelligence and individuality are worth little; your emotions and loyalty to your tribe are everything.

I will go farther than that. I lay the ongoing destruction of democratic institutions squarely at their feet. That's a dramatic and indeed emotional-sounding claim, but just look at what has happened and what is going on right now. It's a disaster. We increasingly distrust our institutions insofar as they are co-governed by our ideological opponents. That didn't used to be the case; what changed? That we are constantly presented with idiotic and easily-refuted versions of our opponents' social and political views. Consequently, we have lost all respect for each other. Staggering percentages of the American people want to split up the country and predict civil war. Long-term friendships and even family relationships have been broken up by relentlessly stupid arguments on social media.

It isn't just that increased familiarity with, or constant exposure to, our opponents' points of view has led to mutual contempt. Sure, familiarity might breed contempt; but through social media we do not project our most genuine, nuanced, intelligent, sensitive, and human selves. Social media makes us, rather, into partisan, tribal drones. We are not really more familiar with each other. We are familiar with stupidified versions of each other. And that is making society insane.

It certainly looks as if the combination of short, visual messages and simplified reactions to them--"hearting," upvoting and downvoting, or choosing from an extremely limited menu of emotional reactions--is enough to dumb down, to stupidify, the versions of ourselves we portray to each other. And that is, again, wreaking havoc on our society. With social media absolutely dominant as the locus of modern socialization, how could this fail to have a profound impact on our broader societal and political mood?

It is Zuck's and Dorsey's fault. They built the medium. The medium stupidifies us. Stupid people are particularly bad at democracy, as our Founding Fathers knew. The leadership of republican institutions must be wisely chosen by a sober citizenry using good sense improved by education. What we have now, thanks to social media, is a citizenry made punch-drunk by meaningless but addictive endorphins awarded them by reinforcing their tribal alliances, stupidly incapable of trusting "the Other" and, therefore, of reaching anything like a reasonable, democratic consensus.

This is one of the main reasons why I quit social media cold turkey over a month ago. I don't miss or regret it. I will continue to use it only for work purposes, i.e., essentially for advertising, which I hope is a reasonable use for it.

I sincerely, fervently hope that in five or ten years' time this is the conventional wisdom about social media. What comes next, I don't know. But we can't survive as a democratic society under these conditions.


How to crowdsource videos via a shared video channel

I got to talking to one of my colleagues here at Everipedia, the encyclopedia of everything, where I am now CIO, about future plans. I had the following idea.

We could create an Everipedia channel--basically, just a YouTube account, but owned by Everipedia and devoted to regularly posting new videos.

We could invite people to submit videos to us; if they're approved, we put branding elements on them and post them. We share some significant amount of the monetization (most of it) with the creator.

We also feature the videos at the top of the Everipedia article about the topic.

Who knows what could happen, but what I  hope would happen is that we'd get a bunch of subscribers, because of all the connections of the video makers (and Everipedia--we collectively have a lot of followers and a lot of traffic). And the more people we got involved, the greater the competition and the better the videos would be.

There are still huge opportunities in the educational video space--so many topics out there simply have no good free videos available.

Others must have organized group channels like this before, but I can't think of who.

What do you think?


On intellectual honesty and accepting the humiliation of error

I. The virtue of intellectual honesty.
Honesty is a greatly underrated epistemic virtue.

There is a sound reason for thinking so. It turns out that probably the single greatest source of error is not ignorance but arrogance, not lack of facts but dogmatism. We leap to conclusions that fit with our preconceptions without testing them. Even when we are more circumspect, we frequently rule out views that turn out to be correct because of our biases. Often we take the easy way out and simply accept whatever our friends, religion, or party says is true.

These are natural habits, but there is a solution: intellectual honesty. At root, this means deep commitment to truth over our own current opinion, whatever it might be. That means accepting clear and incontrovertible evidence as a serious constraint on our reasoning. It means refusing to accept inconsistencies in one's thinking. It means rejecting complexity for its own sake, whereby we congratulate ourselves for our cleverness but rarely do justice to the full body of evidence. It means following the evidence where it leads.

The irony is that some other epistemic virtues actually militate against wisdom, or the difficult search for truth.

Intelligence or cleverness, while in themselves an obvious benefit, become a positive hindrance when we become unduly impressed with ourselves and the cleverness of our theories. This is perhaps the single biggest reason I became disappointed with philosophy and left academe; philosophers are far too impressed with complex and clever reasoning, paying no attention to fundamentals. As a result, anyone who works from fundamentals finds it to be child's play (I thought I did, as a grad student) to poke holes in fashionable theories. This is not because I was more clever than those theoreticians but because they simply did not care about certain constraints that I thought were obvious. And it's easy for them in turn to glibly defend their views; so it's a game, and to me it became a very tiresome one.

Another overrated virtue is, for lack of a better name, conventionality. In every society, every group, there is a shared set of beliefs, some of which are true and some of which are false. I find that in both political and academic discussions, following these conventions is held to be a sign of good sense and probity, while flouting them ranges from suspect to silly to evil. But there has never yet been any group of people with a monopoly on truth, and the inherent difficulty of everything we think about means that we are unlikely to find any such group anytime soon. I think most of my liberal friends are—perhaps ironically—quite conventional in how they think about political issues. Obviously conservatives and others can be as well.

Another virtue, vastly overrated today, is being "scientific." Of course, science is one of the greatest inventions of the modern mind, and it continues to produce amazing results. I am also myself deeply committed to the scientific method and empiricism in a broad sense. But it is an enormous mistake to think that the mere existence of a scientific consensus, especially in the soft sciences, means that one may simply accept what science instructs is true. The strength of a scientific theory is not determined by a poll but by the quality of evidence. Yet the history of science is the history of dogmatic groups of scientists having their confidently-held views corrected or entirely replaced. The problem is a social one; scientists want the respect of their peers and as a result are subject to groupthink. In an age of scientism this problem bleeds into the general nonscientific population, with dogmatists attempting to support their views by epistemically unquestionable (but often badly-constructed and inadequate) "studies"; rejecting anyone's argument, regardless how strong, if it is not presented with "scientific support"; and dismissing any non-scientist opining on a subject about which a scientist happens to have some opinion. As wonderful as science is, the fact is that we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable, even today, in 2017, and we would do well to remember that.

Here's another overrated virtue: incisiveness. Someone is incisive if he produces trenchant replies that allows his friends to laugh at the victims of his wit. Sometimes, balloons need to be punctured and there is nothing there when deflated—of course. But problems arise when glib wits attack some more complex theories and narratives. It is easy to tear down and hard to build. Fundamentally my issue is that we need to probe theories and narratives that are deeply rooted in facts and evidence, and simply throwing them on the scrap heap in ridicule means we do not fully learn what we can from the author's perspective. In philosophy, I'm often inclined to a kind of syncretistic approach which tips its hat to various competing theories that each seem to have their hands on different parts of the elephant. Even in politics, even if we have some very specific policy recommendation, much has been lost if we simply reject everything the other side says in the rough and tumble of debate.

I could go on, but I want to draw a conclusion here. When we debate and publish with a view to arriving at some well-established conclusions, we are as much performing for others as we are following anything remotely resembling an honest method for seeking the truth. We, with the enthusiastic support of our peers, are sometimes encouraged to think that we have the truth when we are still very far indeed from having demonstrated it. By contrast, sometimes we are shamed for considering certain things that we should feel entirely free to explore, because they do contain part of the truth. These social effects get in the way of the most efficient and genuine truth-seeking. The approach that can be contrasted with all of these problems is intellectual honesty. This entails, or requires, courageous individualism, humility, integrity, and faith or commitment to the cause of truth above ideology.

It's sad that it is so rare.

 

II. The dangers of avoiding humiliation.

The problem with most people laboring under error (I almost said "stupid people," but many of the people I have in mind are in fact very bright) is that, when they finally realize that they were in error, they can't handle the shame of knowing that they were in error, especially if they held their beliefs with any degree of conviction. Many people find error to be deeply humiliating. Remember the last time you insisted that a word meant one thing and it meant something else, when you cited some misremembered statistic, or when thought you knew someone who turned out to be a stranger. It's no fun!

Hence we are strongly motivated to deny that we are, in fact, in error, which creates the necessity of various defenses. We overvalue supporting evidence ("Well, these studies say...") and undervalue disconfirming evidence ("Those studies must be flawed"). Sometimes we just make up evidence, convincing ourselves that we just somehow know things ("I have a hunch..."). We seek to discredit people who present them with disconfirming evidence, to avoid having to consider or respond to it ("Racist!").

In short, emotional and automatic processes lead us to avoid concluding that we are in error. Since we take conscious interest in defending our views, complex explanatory methods are deployed in the same effort. ("Faith is a virtue.") But these processes and methods, by which we defend our belief systems, militate in favor of further error and against accepting truth. ("Sure, maybe it sounds weird, but so does a lot of stuff in this field.") This is because propositions, whether true or false, tend to come in large clusters or systems that are mutually supporting. Like lies, if you support one, you find yourself committed to many more.

In this way, our desire to avoid the humiliation of error leads us into complex systems of confusion—and, occasionally, into patterns of thinking that can be called simply evil. ("The ends justify the means.") They're evil because the pride involved in supporting systematically wrong systems of thought drives people into patterns of defense go beyond the merely psychological and into the abusive, psychologically damaging, and physical. ("We can't tolerate the intolerant!" "Enemy of the people." "Let him be anathema.")

What makes things worse is that we are not unique atoms each confronting a nonhuman universe, when we are coming to grips with our error. We are members of like-minded communities. We take comfort that others share our beliefs. This spreads out the responsibility for the error. ("So-and-so is so smart, and he believes this.") It is much easier to believe provably false things if many others do as well, and if they are engaged in the same processes and methods in defending themselves and, by extension, their school of thought.

This is how we systematically fail to understand each other. ("Bigot!" "Idiot!") This is why some people want to censor other people. ("Hate speech." "Bad influence.") This is how wars start.

Maybe, just maybe, bad epistemology is an essential cause of bad politics.

(I might be wrong about that.)

It's better to just allow yourself to be humiliated, and go where the truth leads. This is the nature of skepticism.

This, by the way, is why I became a philosopher and why I commend philosophy to you. The mission of philosophy is—for me, and I perhaps too dogmatically assert that it ought to be the mission for others—to systematically dismantle our systems of belief so that we may begin from a firmer foundation and accept only true beliefs.

This was what Socrates and Descartes knew and taught so brilliantly. Begin with what you know on a very firm foundation, things that you can see for yourself ("I know that here is a hand"), things that nobody denies ("Humans live on the surface of the earth"). And as you make inferences, as you inevitably will and must, learn the canons of logic and method so that you can correctly apportion your strength of belief to the strength of the evidence.

There is no way to do all this without frequently practicing philosophy and frequently saying, "This might or might not support my views; I don't know." If you avoid the deeper questions, you are ipso facto being dogmatic and, therefore, subject to the patterns of error described above.


On the Purposes of the Internet

SISCTI 34
February 28, 2009
Monterrey, Mexico

Introduction

I am going to begin by asking a philosophical question about the Internet. But I can hear some of you saying, “Philosophy? What does that have to do with the Internet? Maybe I will have a siesta.” Well, before you close your eyes, let me assure you that the question is deeply important to some recent debates about the future of the Internet.

The question is: what is the purpose of the Internet? What is the Internet good for? Perhaps you had never thought that something as vast and diverse as the Internet might have a single purpose. In fact, I am going to argue that it has at least two main purposes.

To begin with, think about what the Internet is: a giant global information network. To ask what the Internet is for is about the same as asking what makes information valuable to us, and what basic reasons there might be for networking computers and their information together.

 

The two purposes of the Internet: communication and information

I think the Internet has at least two main purposes: first, communication and socialization, and second, finding the information we need in order to learn and to live our daily lives. In short, the Internet is for both communication and information.

Let me explain this in a simple way. On the one hand, we use the Internet for e-mail, for online forum discussions, for putting our personalities out there on social networking sites, and for sharing our personal creativity. These are all ways we have of communicating and socializing with others.

On the other hand, we are constantly looking things up on the Internet. We might check a news website, look up the meaning of a word in an online dictionary, or do some background reading on a topic in Wikipedia. These are all ways of finding information.

I want to explain an important difference between communication and information. Communication is, we might say, creator-oriented. It’s all about you, your personal needs and circumstances, and your need for engagement and recognition. So communication is essentially about the people who are doing the communicating. If we have no interest in some people, we probably have no interest in their communications. This is why, for example, I have zero interest in most MySpace pages. Almost nobody I know uses MySpace. MySpace is mainly about communication and socialization, and since I’m not actually communicating or socializing with anybody on that website, I don’t care about it.

Information, on the other hand, is not about the person giving the information but about the contents of the information. In a certain way, it really does not matter who gives the information; all that matters is that the information is valid and is of interest to me. And the same information might be just as interesting to another person. So, we might say, communication is essentially personal, and information is essentially impersonal.

I say, then, that the Internet’s purposes are communication and information. In fact, the Internet has famously revolutionized both.

The Internet is addictive largely because it gives us so many more people to talk to, and we can talk to them so efficiently. It allows us to compare our opinions with others’, to get feedback about our own thinking and creative work. In some ways, the Internet does this more efficiently than face-to-face conversation. If we are interested in a specific topic, we do not need to find a friend or a colleague who is interested in the topic; we just join a group online that has huge numbers of people already interested, and ready to talk about the topic endlessly.

Online discussions of serious topics are often a simplistic review of research, with a lot of confused amateur speculation thrown in. We could, if we wanted to, simply read the research—go to the source material. But often we don’t. We often prefer to debate about our own opinions, even when we have the modesty to admit that our opinions aren’t worth very much. Discussion is preferred by many people; they prefer active discussion over passive absorption. Who can blame them? You can’t talk back to a scientific paper, and a scientific paper can’t respond intelligently to your own thoughts. The testing or evaluation of our own beliefs is ultimately what interests us, and this is what we human beings use conversation to do.

But the Internet is also wonderfully efficient at delivering impersonal information. Search engines like Google make information findable with an efficiency we have never seen before. You can now get fairly trustworthy answers to trivial factual questions in seconds. With a little more time and skilled digging, you can get at least plausible answers to more many complex questions online. The Internet has become one of the greatest tools for both research and education that has ever been devised by human beings.

So far I doubt I have told you anything you didn’t already know. But I am not here to say how great the Internet is. I wanted simply to illustrate that the Internet does have these two purposes, and that the purposes are different—they are distinguishable.

How the Internet confuses communication and information

Next, let me introduce a certain problem. It might sound at first like a purely conceptual, abstract, philosophical problem, but let me assure you that it is actually a practical problem.

The problem is that, as purposes, communication and information are inherently confusable. They are very easy to mix up. In fact, I am sure some of you were confused earlier, when I was saying that there are these two purposes, communication and information. Aren’t those just the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing? After all, when people record information, they obviously intend to communicate something to other people. And when people communicate, they must convey some information. So information and communication go hand-in-hand.

Well, that is true, they do. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t draw a useful distinction fairly clearly. Here’s a way to think about the distinction. In 1950, a researcher would walk into a library and read volumes of information. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you might walk up to a librarian and ask a question. These actions—reading and talking—were very different. Information was something formal, edited, static, and contained in books. Communication was informal, unmediated, dynamic, and occurred in face-to-face conversation.

Still, I have to agree that communication and information are indeed very easy to confuse. And the Internet in particular confuses them deeply. What gives rise to the confusion is this. On the Internet, if you have a conversation, your communication becomes information for others. It is often saved indefinitely, and made searchable, so that others can benefit from it. What was for you a personal transaction becomes, for others, an information resource. This happens on mailing lists and Web forums. I myself have searched through the public archives of some mailing lists for answers to very specialized questions. I was using other people’s discussions as an information resource. So, should we say that a mailing list archive is communication, or is it information? Well, it is both.

This illustrates how the Internet confuses communication and information, but many other examples can be given. The Blogosphere has confused journalism, which used to be strictly an information function, with sharing with friends, which is a communication function. When you write a commentary about the news, or when you report about something you saw at a conference, you’re behaving like a journalist. You invite anyone and everyone to benefit from your news and opinion. Perhaps you don’t initially care who your readers are. But when you write about other blog posts, other people write about yours, and you invite comments on your blog, you’re communicating. Personalities then begin to matter, and who is talking can become more important to us than what is said. Information, as it were, begins to take a back seat.

Moreover, when news websites allow commenting on stories, this transforms what was once a relatively impersonal information resource into a lively discussion, full of colorful personalities. And, of course, online newspapers have added blogs of their own. I have often wondered whether there is a meaningful difference between a newspaper story, a blog by a journalist, and a well-written blog written by a non-journalist. That precisely illustrates what I mean. The Internet breaks down the distinction between information and communication—in this case, the distinction between journalism and conversation.

Why is the distinction between communication and information important?

I’ll explore more examples later, but now I want to return to my main argument. I say that the communication and information purposes of the Internet have become mixed up.

But—you might wonder—why is it so important that we distinguish communication and information, and treat them differently, as I’m suggesting? Is having a conversation about free trade, for example, really all that different from reading a news article online about free trade? To anyone who writes about the topic online, they certainly feel similar. The journalist seems like just another participant in a big conversation, and you are receiving his communication, and you could reply online if you wanted to.

I think the difference between information and communication is important because they have different purposes and therefore different standards of value. When we communicate, we want to interface with other living, active minds and dynamic personalities. The aim of communication, whatever else we might say about it, is genuine, beneficial engagement with other human beings. Communication in this sense is essential to such good things as socialization, friendship, romance, and business. That, of course, is why it is so popular.

Consider this: successful communication doesn’t have to be particularly informative. I can just use a smiley face or say “I totally agree!” and I might have added something to a conversation. By contrast, finding good information does not mean a significant communication between individuals has taken place. When we seek information, we are not trying to build a relationship. Rather, we want knowledge. The aim of information-seeking is reliable, relevant knowledge. This is associated with learning, scholarship, and simply keeping up with the latest developments in the news or in your field.

Good communication is very different from good information. Online communication is free and easy. There are rarely any editors to check every word you write, before you post it. That is not necessary, because these websites are not about creating information, they are about friendly, or at least interesting, communication. No editors are needed for that.

These communities, and blogs, and much else online, produce a huge amount of searchable content. But a lot of this content isn’t very useful as information. Indeed, it is very popular to complain about the low quality of information on the Internet. The Internet is full of junk, we say. But to say that the Internet is full of junk is to say that most conversations are completely useless to most other people. That’s obviously true, but it is irrelevant. Those who complain that the Internet is full of junk are ignoring the fact that the purpose of the Internet is as much communication as it is information.

Personally, I have no objection whatsoever to the communicative function of the Internet. In fact, it is one of my favorite things about the Internet. I have had fascinating conversations with people from around the world, made online friendships, and cultivated interests I share with others, and I could not possibly have done all this without the communicative medium that is the Internet.

But, as I will argue next, in making communication so convenient, we have made the Internet much less convenient as an information resource.

Communicative signal is informational noise

You are probably familiar with how the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio has been used to talk about the quality of online information and communication. A clear radio transmission is one that has high signal and low noise. Well, I’d like to propose that the Internet’s two purposes are like two signals: the communication signal and the information signal. The problem is that the two signal are sharing the same channel. So I now come to perhaps the most important point of this paper, which I will sum up in a slogan: communicative signal is informational noise. That is at least often the case.

Let me explain. The Internet’s two purposes are not merely confusable. In fact, we might say that the communicative function of the Internet has deeply changed and interfered with the informative function of the Internet. The Internet has become so vigorously communicative that it has become more difficult to get reliable and relevant information on the Internet.

I must admit that this claim is still very vague, and it might seem implausible, so let me clarify and support the claim further.

The basic idea is that what works well as communication does not work so well as information. What might seem to be weird and frustrating as information starts to make perfect sense when we think of it as communication.

Let me take a few examples—to begin with, Digg.com. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a website in which people submit links for everyone else in the community to rate by a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This description makes it look like a straightforward information resource: here are Internet pages that many people find interesting, useful, amusing, or whatever. Anyone can create an account, and all votes are worth the same. It’s the wisdom of the crowd at work. That, I assume, is the methodology behind the website.

But only the most naïve would actually say that the news item that gets the most “Diggs” is the most important, most interesting, or most worthwhile. Being at the top of Digg.com means only one thing: popularity among Digg participants. I am sure most Digg users know that the front page of Digg.com is little more than the outcome of an elaborate game. It can be interesting, to be sure. But the point is that Digg is essentially a tool for communication and socialization masquerading as an information resource.

YouTube is another example. On its face, it looks like a broadcast medium. By allowing anyone to have a YouTube account, carefully recording the number of video views and giving everyone an equal vote, it looks like the wisdom of the crowd is harnessed. But the fact of the matter is that YouTube is mainly a communication medium. Its ratings represent little more than popularity, or the ability to play the YouTube game. When people make their own videos (as opposed to copying stuff from DVDs), they’re frequently conversational videos. They are trying to provoke thought, or get a laugh, or earn praise for their latest song. They want others to respond, and others do respond, by watching videos, rating videos, and leaving comments. I suspect that YouTube contributors are not interested, first and foremost, in building a useful resource for the world in general. They are glad, I am sure, that they are doing that too. But what YouTube contributors want above all is to be highly watched and highly rated, and in short a success within the YouTube community. This is evidence that they have been heard and understood—in short, that they have communicated successfully.

I could add examples, but I think you probably already believe that most of the best-known Web 2.0 websites are set up as media of communication and socialization—not primarily as impersonal information sources.

But what about Wikipedia and Google Search? These are two of the most-used websites online, and they seem to be more strictly information resources.

Well, yes and no. Even Wikipedia breaks down the difference between a communication medium and an information resource. There has been a debate, going back to the very first year of Wikipedia, about whether Wikipedia is first and foremost a content-production project or a community. You might want to say that it is both, of course. That is true, but the relevant question is whether Wikipedia’s requirements as a community are actually more or less important than its requirements as a project. For example, one might look at many Wikipedia articles and say, “These badly need the attention of a professional editor.” One might look at Wikipedia’s many libel scandals and say, “This community needs real people, not anonymous administrators, to take responsibility so that rules can be enforced.” Wikipedia’s answer to that is to say, “We are all editors. No expert or professional is going to be given any special rights. That is the nature of our community, and we are not going to change it.” The needs of Wikipedia’s community outweigh the common-sense requirements of Wikipedia as an information resource.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that Wikipedia is useless as an information resource. Of course it is extremely useful as an information resource. I am also not saying that it is merely a medium of collaborative communication. It clearly is very informational, and it is intended to be, as well.

Indeed, most users treat Wikipedia first and foremost as an information resource. But, and this is my point, for the Wikipedians themselves, it is much more than that: it is their collaborative communication, which has become extremely personal for them, and this is communication they care passionately about. The personal requirements of the Wikipedians have dampened much of the support for policy changes that would make Wikipedia much more valuable as an information resource.

Why do we settle for so much informational noise?

Let me step back and try to understand what is going on here. I say that Web 2.0 communities masquerade as information resources, but they are really little more than tools for communication and socialization. Or, in the case of Wikipedia, the community’s requirements overrule common-sense informational requirements. So, why do we allow this to happen?

Well, that’s very simple. People deeply enjoy and appreciate the fact that they can share their thoughts and productions without the intermediation of editors or anything else that might make their resources more useful as information resources. And why is it so important to so many people that there be no editors? Because editors are irrelevant and get in the way of communication.

The fact that Web 2.0 communities are set up for communication, more than as information resources, explains why they have adopted a certain set of policies. Consider some policies that Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, and the many smaller Web 2.0 websites have in common.

First, on these websites, anyone can participate anonymously. Not only that, but you can make as many accounts as you want. Second, when submissions are rated, anyone can vote, and votes are (at least initially, and in many systems always) counted equally. Third, if there is any authority or special rights in the system, it is always internally determined. Your authority to do something or other never depends on some external credentials or qualification. University degrees, for example, are worth nothing on YouTube.

The result is that, on a website like Wikipedia, a person is associated with one or more accounts, and the performance of the accounts against all other accounts is all that the system really cares about.

To Internet community participants, this seems very rational. A person is judged based on his words and creations alone, and on his behavior within the system. This seems meritocratic. People also sometimes persuade themselves, based on a misinterpretation of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, that ratings are an excellent indicator of quality.

But these systems are not especially meritocratic. It is not quality, but instead popularity and the ability to game the system that wins success in Web 2.0 communities. High ratings and high watch counts are obviously not excellent indicators of quality, for the simple reason that so much garbage rises to the top. There is no mystery why there is so much time-wasting content on the front page of YouTube, Digg.com, and many of the rest: it’s because the content is amusing, titillating, or outrageous. Being amusing, titillating, and outrageous is not a standard of good information, but it can be a sign of successful communication.

The less naïve participants, and of course the owners of these websites, know that Internet community ratings are largely a popularity contest or measure the ability to play the game. They don’t especially care that the websites do not highlight or highly rank the most important, relevant, or reliable information. The reason for this is perfectly clear: the purpose of these websites is, first and foremost, communication, socialization, and community-building. Building an information resource is just a very attractive side-benefit, but still only a side-benefit, of the main event of playing the game.

The attraction, in fact, is very similar to that of American Idol—I understand you have something similar called “Latin American Idol,” is that correct? Well, I have been known to watch American Idol. It is a television competition in which ordinary people compete to become the next Idol, who earns a record contract, not to mention the attention of tens of millions of television viewers. The singing on American Idol, especially in the early weeks, is often quite bad. But that is part of its entertainment value. We do not watch the program to be entertained with great singing—that is, of course, nice when it happens. Instead, we watch the program mainly because the drama of the competition is fascinating. Even though the quality of the singing is supposed to be what the program is about, in fact quality is secondary. The program’s attraction stems from the human element—from the fact that real people are putting themselves in front of a mass audience, and the audience can respond by voting for their favorites. The whole game is quite addictive, in a way not unlike the way Internet communities are addictive.

But let’s get back to the Internet. I want to suggest that the information resource most used online, Google Search itself, is also a popularity contest. Google’s PageRank technology is reputed to be very complex, and its details are secret. But the baseline methodology is well-known: Google ranks a web page more highly if it is linked to by other pages, which are themselves linked to by popular pages, and so forth. The assumption behind this ranking algorithm is somewhat plausible: the more that popular websites link to a given website, the more relevant and high-quality the website probably is. The fact that Google is as useful and dominant as it is shows that there is some validity to this assumption.

All that admitted, I want to make a simple point. Google Search is essentially a popularity contest, and frequently, the best and most relevant page is not even close to being a popular page. That is a straightforward failure. But just as annoying, perhaps, is the prevalence of false positives. I mean the pages that rank not because they are relevant or high-quality, but because they are popular or (even worse) because someone knows how to game the Google system.

Does this sound familiar? It should. I do not claim that Google is a medium of communication. Clearly, it is an information resource. But I want to point out that Google follows in the same policies of anonymity, egalitarianism, and merit determined internally through linkings and algorithms that machines can process. As far as we know, Google does not seed its rankings with data from experts. Its data is rarely edited at all. Google dutifully spiders all content without any prejudice of any sort, applies its algorithm, and delivers the results to us very efficiently.

I speculate—I can only speculate here—that Google does not edit its results much, for two reasons. First, I am sure that Google is deeply devoted the same values, values that favor a fair playing field for communication games that many Web 2.0 websites play. But, you might say, this is a little puzzling. Why doesn’t Google seek out ways to include the services of editors and experts, and improve its results? An even better idea, actually, would be to allow everyone to rate whatever websites they want, then publish their web ratings according to a standard syndication format, and then Google might use ratings from millions of people creatively to seed its results. In fairness to Google, it may do just this with the Google SearchWiki, which was launched last November. But as far as I know, SearchWiki does not aggregate search results; each individual can edit only the results that are displayed to that user.

So there is, I think, a second and more obvious reason that Google does not adjust its results with the help of editors or by aggregating syndicated ratings. Namely, its current, apparently impersonal search algorithm seems fair, and it is easy to sell it as fair. However much Google might be criticized because its results are not always the best, or because the results are gamable or influenced by blogs, at least it has the reputation of indeed being mostly fair, largely because PageRank is determined by features internal to the Internet itself—in other words, link data.

Google’s reputation for fairness is one of its most important assets. But why is such a reputation so important? Here I can finally return to the thread of my argument. Fairness is important to us because we want communication to be fair. In a certain way, the entire Internet is a communicative game. Eyeballs are the prize, and Google plays a sort of moderator or referee of the game. If that’s right, then we certainly want the referee to be fair, not to prefer one website over another simply because, for example, some expert happens to say the one is better. When it comes to conversations, fairness means equal consideration, equal time, an equal shot at impressing everyone in the room, so to speak. Communication per se is not the sort of thing over which editors should have any control, except sometimes to keep people polite.

The fact that Google has an impersonal search algorithm really means that it conceives of itself as a fair moderator of communication, not as a careful chooser of relevant, reliable content. And a lot of people are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Conclusion

In this paper I have developed an argument, and I hope I haven’t taken too long to explain it. I have argued that the Internet is devoted both to communication and information. I went on to say that communication and information are easily confused, and the Internet makes it even easier to confuse them, since what serves as mere communication for one person can be viewed later as useful information for another person. But what makes matters difficult is that we expect communication, and the websites that support online communication, to be as unconstrained and egalitarian as possible. As a result, however, the Internet serves rather well as a communication medium, as a means to socialize and build communities, but not nearly as well as an information resource.

I can imagine a reply to this, which would say: this is all a good thing. Information is about control. Communication is about freedom. Viva communication! Should our alleged betters—professors, top-ranked journalists, research foundations, and the like—enjoy more control over what we all see online, than the average person? The fact is that in the past, they have enjoyed such control. But the egalitarian policies of the Internet have largely removed their control. In the past, what those experts and editors have happened to say enjoyed a sort of status as impersonal information. But all information is personal. The Internet merely recognizes this fact when it treats allegedly impersonal information as personal communication.

This is the common analysis. But I think it is completely wrong.[1] First, the elites still exert control in many ways, and there is little reason to think the Internet will change this. Second, the radical egalitarianism of Internet policies does not disempower the elites so much as it disempowers intelligence, and empowers those with the time on their hands to create and enjoy popular opinion, and also those who care enough to game the system.

If more people were to emphasize the informative purpose of the Internet more, this would not empower elites; it would, rather, empower everyone who uses the Internet to learn and do research. We would have to spend less time sorting through the by-products of online communication, and could spend more time getting solid knowledge.

In fact, I think most people enjoy the Internet greatly as an information resource—at least as much as they enjoy it as a communication medium. But most of the people who create websites and Internet standards—the many people responsible for today’s Internet—have not had this distinction in mind. But I think it is very fruitful and interesting way to think about the Internet and its purposes, and—who knows?—perhaps it will inspire someone to think about how to improve the informational features of the Internet.

In fact, if my fondest hope for this paper were to come true, it would be that those building the Internet would begin to think of it a little bit more as a serious information resource, and a little bit less as just a fun medium of communication.

[1] As I have argued in a recent paper: “The Future of Expertise after Wikipedia,” Episteme (2009).


Why study higher mathematics and other stuff most people don't use in everyday life?

This video was posted in a Facebook group of mine here:

I find it ironic that some of the most listened-to speakers about education explain that the cure to our educational ills is to point out that education is unnecessary. I call this educational anti-intellectualism. Here's another representative sample and another.

It is possible to make the argument, "X isn't going to be necessary for most students in life, therefore X should not be taught," for almost everything that is taught beyond the sixth grade or so. After that, we should be taught "critical thinking" and vague "analytical abilities" and "reading comprehension" and other such claptrap; that seems to be the natural consequence of this commentator's thinking, and sadly, he is not alone.

The fact that educated people like this teacher, and all the people who approve of this stuff, cannot answer the question is very disappointing. It's not surprising, perhaps, because it's philosophy and philosophy is very hard. Moreover, there are a variety of sort-of-right answers that subtly get things wrong and might end up doing more damage than good.

In the latter category I might want to place E.D. Hirsch, Jr., one of the most prominent education traditionalists alive. (He just published a book I got today called Why Knowledge Matters, and he might have updated his views on this; I'll find out soon.) Hirsch's argument is that we ought to learn classics and, essentially, get a liberal arts education, because this is the knowledge we use to interact with other educated adults in our culture. It is "cultural literacy" and "cultural capital" and this is something we desperately need to thrive as individuals and as a civilization.

That's all true, I think. If Hirsch made the argument as, essentially a defense of Western (or just advanced) civilization—that we need to educate people in Western civilization if we are to perpetuate it—then I'd be fully on board. But Hirsch as I understand him appeals particularly to our individual desire to be a part of the elite, to get ahead, to be able to lord it over our less-educated citizens. This is a very bad argument that won't convince many people. If Hirsch or anyone makes it, I would put it in the category of arguing for the right conclusion for the wrong reason.

The argument I'd give to this math teacher is the same I'd give to someone who says we shouldn't memorize history facts or read boring, classic literature or learn the details of science or what have you. Of course you don't need that stuff to get through life. Most people are as dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to academic stuff (yes, in all countries; some are worse than others).

The reason you get an education, and study stuff like higher math, is more along the following lines. Education trains the mind and thereby liberates us from natural prejudice and stupidity. This is the proper work for human beings because we are rational creatures. We are honing the tool that comes more naturally to us than to any other animal. One must realize, as people like this educated fool and so many others seem not to, that education, such as math education, is not merely a tool in the sense of "abilities." The content, or what is known, is a deeply important part of the tool; in fact, as Hirsch does argue correctly and convincingly, any "analytical abilities" brought to a text will be very poor without relevant subject knowledge. If you want an analogy, it is a poor one to say that a course in logic sharpens your wit, to say you want to have sharp wits, and therefore you should study "critical thinking"; the heft or substance of your wit's ax is all the rest of the knowledge behind the cutting edge. Getting an A in a logic class (a course I taught many times) without knowledge of math, science, history, literature, etc., gives you about as much heft and effectiveness as a sharp-edged piece of paper: capable of paper-cuts.

The core of the argument for knowledge is that academic knowledge forms a sort of deeply interconnected system, and the more deeply and broadly that we understand this system, the more capable we are in every bit of life. This is true of us as individuals and also as a society or civilization. It is completely and literally true that the fantastic structure of modern civilization as we know it, all of the historically unprecedented developments we have seen, is a direct outgrowth of the deep commitment of our society's leaders—since the Enlightenment—to education in this system.

The system I refer to is deeply connected, but that doesn't mean it isn't also loosely connected in the sense that one can learn bits here and there and benefit somewhat. That's absolutely true. This is why it's possible for the math teacher to say, "Well, you don't really need to know higher math in order to live life." Some people are geniuses about literature but don't remember anything about any math they learned beyond the sixth grade.

But as everybody with higher education knows, in fact it is absolutely necessary to learn higher math if you are going to learn higher science—both the hard sciences and the social sciences, both of which require heavy calculation—and deal intelligently with statistics and probabilities, as is necessary in politics, or the financial part of business, or some of programming, etc.

This is because the "deep structure" of reality is mathematical. To declare that "you don't really need to know it" is to declare that you don't need to know the deep structure of reality. Sure, of course you don't. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea don't. But do you want our children to be more like them or more like fully rational, aware, human creatures?