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

Larry Sanger

A speech for "the locals"--Upper Arlington Public Library, January 23, 2008.  This is a more general discussion; the Citizendium is not mentioned once.

Information is easy, knowledge is difficult

There is a mind-boggling amount of information online. And this is a wonderful thing. I’m serious about that. A good search engine is like an oracle: you can ask it any question you like and be sure to get an answer. The answer might be exactly what you’re looking for, or it might be, well, oracular—difficult to interpret and possibly incorrect. I draw the usual distinction between knowledge and information. You can find information online very easily. Knowledge is another matter altogether.

Now, this is not something new about the Internet. It’s a basic feature of human life that while information is easy, knowledge is difficult. There has never been a shortage of mere data and opinion in human life. It’s a very old observation that the most ignorant people are usually full of opinions, while many of the most knowledgeable people are full of doubt. Other people are certainly sources of knowledge, but they are also sources of half-truths, confusion, misinformation, and lies. If we simply want information from others, it is easy to get; if we want knowledge in any strong sense of the word, it is very difficult. Besides that, long before the Internet, there was far more to read, far more television shows and movies to watch, than anyone could ever absorb in many lifetimes. Before the Internet, we were already awash in information. Wading through all that information in search of some hard knowledge was very difficult indeed.

Too Much InformationThe Internet is making this old and difficult problem even worse. If we had an abundance of information in, say, the 1970s, the Internet has created a superabundance of information today. Out of curiosity, I looked up some numbers. According to one estimate, there are now over 1.2 billion people online; Netcraft estimated that there are over 100 million websites, and about half of those are active. And those estimates come from over a year ago.

With that many people, and that many active websites, clearly there is, as I say, a superabundance of information. Nielsen ratings of Internet search showed that there were some six billion searches performed in December, 2007, in one month—that’s about 72 billion in a year! Google, by the way, was responsible for two thirds of those searches. Now, you might have heard these numbers before; I don’t mean to be telling you news. But I want to worry out loud about a consequence of this situation.

My worry is that the superabundance of information is devaluing knowledge. The more that information piles up on Internet servers around the world, and the easier it is for that information to be found, the less distinctive and attractive that knowledge will appear by comparison. I fear that the Internet has already greatly weakened our sense of what is distinctive about knowledge, and why it is worth seeking. I know this might seem rather abstract, and not something worth getting worked up about. Why, really, should you care?

It used to be that in order to learn some specific fact, like the population of France, you had to crack open a big thick paper encyclopedia or other reference book. One of the great things about the Internet is that that sort of searching—for very specific, commonly-sought-after facts—has become dead simple. Even more, there are many facts one can now find online that, in the past, would have taken a trip to the local library to find. The point is that the superabundance of information has actually made it remarkably easy to get information. Today, it’s easy not just to get some information about something or other, it’s easy to get boatloads of information about very specific questions and topics we’re interested in.

For all that, knowledge is, I’m afraid, not getting much easier. To be quite sure of an answer still requires comparing multiple sources, critical thinking, sometimes a knowledge of statistics and mathematics, and a careful attention to detail when it comes to understanding texts. In short, knowledge still requires hard thought. Sure, technology is a great time-saver in various ways; it has certainly made research easier, and it will become only more so. But the actual mental work that results in knowledge of a topic cannot be made much easier, simply because no one else can do your thinking for you. So while information becomes nearly instantaneous and dead simple, knowledge is looking like a doddering old uncle.

What do I mean by that? Well, you can find tons of opinions online, ready-made, but there is an interesting feature of a lot of the information and opinion you find online: not only is it easy to find, it is easy to digest. Just think of the different types of pages that a typical Web search turns up: news articles, which summarize events for the average person; blogs, which are usually very brief; Web forums, which only rarely go into depth; and encyclopedia articles and other mere summaries of topics. Of course, there are also very good websites, as well as the “Deep Web,” which contains things like books and journal articles and white papers; but most people do not use those other resources. The point is that most of the stuff that you typically find on the Internet is pretty lightweight. It’s Info Lite.

“Right,” you say, “what’s wrong with that? Great taste, less filling!” Sure, I like easy, entertaining information as much as the next guy. But what’s wrong with it is that it makes the hard work of knowledge much less appealing by comparison. For example, if you are coming to grips with what we should do about global warming, or illegal immigration, or some other very complex issue, you must escape the allure of all the dramatic and entertaining news articles and blog posts on these subjects. Instead, you must be motivated to wade through a lot of far drier material. The sources that are more likely to help you in your quest for knowledge look very boring by comparison. My point here is that the superabundance of information devalues knowledge, because the means of solid knowledge are decidedly more difficult and less sexy than the Info Lite that it is so easy to find online.

There is another way that the superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. It is that, for 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 isn’t someone 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’s 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. So, while the Internet conversation has instilled in us a tendency to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We do end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we can’t help it.

In short, we are reading reams of content written by amateurs, without the benefit of editors, which means we must as it were be our own editors. But many of us, I’m afraid, do not seem to be prepared for the job. In my own long experience interacting with Internet users, I find heaps of skepticism and little respect for what others write, regardless of whether it is edited or not. Now, skepticism is all well and good. But at the same time, I find hardly anything in the way of real critical thinking. The very opinionated people I encounter online rarely demonstrate that they have thought things through as they should, given their strength of convictions. I have even encountered college professors who cite easy-to-find news articles in the commission of the most elementary of logical fallacies. So it isn’t necessarily just a lack of education that accounts for the problem I’m describing. Having “information at our fingertips,” clearly, sometimes makes us skip the hard thinking that knowledge requires. Even those of us who ought to know better are too often content to be impressed by the sheer quantity and instant availability of information, and let it substitute for their own difficult thought.

The nature and value of knowledge

Easy information devalues hard knowledge, I say. But so far I have merely been appealing to your understanding of the nature and value of knowledge. Someone might ask me: well, what do you mean by knowledge, anyway, that it is so different from mere information? And why does it matter?

Philosophers since Plato have been saying that knowledge is actually a special kind of belief. It must be true, first of all, and it must also be justified, or have good reasons or evidence to support it. For example, let’s suppose I read something for the first time on some random blog, such as that Heath Ledger died. Suppose I just uncritically believe this. Well, even if it’s true, I don’t know that it is true, because random blogs make up stuff all the time. A blog saying something really isn’t a good enough reason to believe it. But if I then read the news in a few other, more credible sources, then my belief becomes much better justified, and then I can be said to know.

Now, I don’t want to go into a lot of unnecessary details and qualifications, which I could, at this point. So let me get right to my point. I say knowledge is, roughly speaking, justified, true belief. Well then, I want to add that knowledge is difficult not because getting truth is difficult, but because justifying our beliefs is. In other words, it’s really easy to get truth. Google is a veritable oracle of truth. The problem is recognizing truth, and distinguishing it from falsehood. The ocean of information online contains a huge amount of truth. The difficulty comes in knowing when you’ve got it.

Well, that’s what justification is for. We use reasons, or evidence, to determine that, indeed, if we accept a piece of information, we will have knowledge, not error. But producing a good justification for our beliefs is extremely difficult. It requires, as I said before, good sources, critical thinking, sometimes a knowledge of statistics and mathematics, and a careful attention to detail when it comes to understanding texts. This all takes time and energy, and while others can help, it is something that one must do for oneself.

Here you might wonder: if justification, and therefore knowledge, is really so difficult, then why go to all the trouble? Besides, justification is not an all-or-nothing matter. How much evidence is needed before we can be said to know something? After all, if a blogger says that Heath Ledger is dead, that is at least some weak evidence that Heath Ledger is in fact dead. Do I really need stronger evidence? Why?

These are very difficult questions. The best brief answer is, “It depends.” Sometimes, if someone is just telling an entertaining story, it doesn’t matter at all whether it’s true or not. So it doesn’t matter that you know the details of the story; if the story entertains, it has done its job. I am sure that celebrity trivia is similar: it doesn’t matter whether the latest gossip in the Weekly World News about Britney Spears is true, it’s just entertaining to read. But there are many other subjects that matter a lot more. Here are two: global warming and immigration reform. Well, I certainly can’t presume to tell you how much evidence you need for your positions on these issues, before you can claim to have knowledge. Being a skeptic, I would actually say that we can’t have knowledge about such complex issues, or at least, not very certain knowledge. But I would say that it is still important to get as much knowledge as possible about these issues. Why? Quite simply because a lot is riding on our getting the correct answers, and the more that we study issues, and justify our beliefs, the more likely our beliefs are to be correct.

To passively absorb information from the Internet, without caring about whether we have good reasons for what we believe, is really to roll the dice. Like all gambling, this is pleasant and self-indulgent. But if the luck doesn’t go your way, it can come back to bite you.

Knowledge matters, and as wonderful a tool for knowledge as the Internet can be, it can also devalue knowledge. It does so, I’ve said, by making passive absorption of information seem more pleasant than the hard work of justifying beliefs, and also by presenting us with so much unedited, low-quality information that we cannot absorb it as carefully as we would like. But there is another way that the Internet devalues knowledge: by encouraging anonymity. So here’s a bit about that.

Knowledge and anonymity

We get much of our knowledge from other people. Of course, we pick some things up directly from conversation, or speeches like this one. We also read books, newspapers, and magazines; we watch informational television programs; and we watch films. In short, we get knowledge either directly from other people, or indirectly, through various media.

Now, the Internet is a different sort of knowledge source. The Internet is very different, importantly different, from both face-to-face conversation and from the traditional media. Let’s talk about that.

The Internet has been called, again, a giant conversation. But it’s a very unusual conversation, if so. For one thing, it’s not a face-to-face conversation. We virtually never have the sort of “video telephone” conversations that the old science fiction stories described. In fact, on many online knowledge websites, we often have no names, pictures, or any information at all, about the people that we converse or work with online. Like the dog in the famous New Yorker cartoon said, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

In the three-dimensional online virtual world, Second Life, there is an elaborate system in which you can choose the precise physical characteristics for the person you are online—your “avatar.” Not surprisingly, in Second Life, there are a lot more beautiful and striking-looking people than there are in “First Life”—real life. This practice of make-believe is very self-conscious, and many academic papers have been written about how “identity” is “constructed” online in general.

When I went to make an avatar for myself for Second Life a few years ago, I was pretty uncomfortable representing myself as anything other than what I am. So I actually made an avatar that looks like me. (I didn’t really get it right.) I’ve always been personally uncomfortable representing myself online in any other way than how I really am. But I realize that I am unusual in this regard. Obviously, privacy matters.

Now, think of this. People who care very much about getting their facts right generally consult authoritative sources; they don’t usually get their knowledge from casual conversation with friends and relatives. But at least, when we do get knowledge from a friend or relative, we have some idea of how reliable they are. Maybe you have an eccentric acquaintance, for instance, who is a conspiracy theorist, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time considering the merits of his sources, or the plausibility of their claims. Let’s say you also know that he barely got through high school and basically doesn’t care what the mainstream media or college professors say. Your acquaintance may have many fascinating factoids and interesting stories, but probably, you aren’t going to take what he says very seriously.

But imagine if you were chatting online about politics or UFOs, or other weird stuff, with someone you didn’t know was actually your acquaintance. You might actually take him more seriously in that case. You might take his bizarre claims somewhat more seriously. I don’t mean that you would simply believe them—of course you wouldn’t—but you would not have any specific reasons to discount them, as you would if you knew you were talking to your acquaintance. Your only positive reason to discount the claims would be: I don’t know this person, this person is anonymous. But you know that there can be brilliant and reliable people anonymous online, as well as thoroughly unreliable people.

Well, I think many of us would actually trust an anonymous person more than we would trust our more eccentric acquaintances. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to accuse anyone of being a dupe. Of course, we are able to spot really daft stuff no matter who it comes from. But without knowing who a person is, we are operating without a basic bit of information that we are used to having, in evaluating what people tell us face-to-face. If we lack any information at all about how reliable a source is, we will not simply conclude that the source is completely unreliable; we will often give the person the benefit of the doubt. And that is sometimes more respect than we would give the person if we knew a few basic facts about him or her.

More generally, there is a common attitude online that it is not supposed to matter, in fact, who you are. We are all perfectly equal in many online communities, except for what we say or do in those communities. Who we are offline is not supposed to matter. But it does matter, when it comes to evaluating what people say about offline topics, like science and politics. The more time we spend in the Internet’s egalitarian communities, the more contempt we might ultimately have for information about a person’s real-world credibility. The very notion of personal credibility, or reliability, is ultimately under attack, I think. On a certain utopian view, no one should be held up as an expert, and no one should be dismissed as a crackpot. All views, from all people, about all subjects, should be considered with equal respect.

Danger, Will Robinson! Personal credibility is a universal notion; it can be found in all societies and throughout recorded history. There is a good reason that it is universal, as well: knowledge of a person’s credibility, or lack thereof, is a great time-saver. If you know that someone knows a lot about a subject, then that person is, in fact, more likely to be correct than some random person. Now, the expert’s opinion cannot take the place of thought on your part; usually, you probably should not simply adopt the expert’s opinion. It is rarely that simple. But that doesn’t mean the information about personal credibility is irrelevant or useless.

Two ideas for a solution

So far, I have mainly been criticizing the Internet, which you might find it odd for me to do. After all, I work online.

I don’t think that the Internet is an unmitigated bad influence. I won’t bore you by listing all the great things there are about the Internet, like being able to get detailed information about every episode of Star Trek, without leaving home, at 3 AM. Besides, I have only focused on a small number of problems, and I don’t think they are necessarily Earth-shatteringly huge problems, either. But they are problems, and I think we can do a little bit to help solve them, or at least mitigate them.

First, we can make a role for experts in Internet communities. Of course, make the role so that does not conflict with what makes the community work. Don’t simply put all the reins of authority in the hands of your experts; doing that would ensure that the project remains a project by and for experts, and of relatively little broader impact. But give them the authority to approve content, for example, or to post reviews, or other modest but useful tasks.

My hope is that, when the general public work under the “bottom up” guidance of experts, this will have some good effects. I think the content such a community might produce would be more reliable than the run of the mill on the Internet. I would also hope that the content itself will be more conducive to seeking knowledge instead of mere information, simply by modelling good reasoning and research.

I do worry, though, that if expert-reviewed information online were to become the norm, then people might be more likely to turn off their critical faculties.

Second, we can create new communities, in which real names and identities are expected, and we can reward people in old communities for using their real names and identities. This is something that has done, for example, with its “real name” feature on product reviews. If contributors are identified, we could use the same sort of methods to evaluate what they say online, that we would use if we were to run into them on the street.

I began by laying out a general problem: superabundance of information online is devaluing knowledge. I don’t know if we can really solve this problem, but the two suggestions I just made might go a little way to making it a little better. If we include a modest role for experts in more of our Internet communities, we’ll have better information to begin with, and better role models. Moreover, if we identify the sources of our information, we will be in a better position to evaluate it.