The Democratic Idea of Knowledge

3 Jul

In their misguided battle against ‘global warming’, the phrase, “science is not a democracy” has become a favorite with conservative pundits.

Well, I am co-opting their slogan to initiate discussion about something else—the future of knowledge.

Let us imagine that Google’s model of site ranking trumps all others. The Google model relies on the fact that if an information source is reliable, people will “vote” for it with a link. So more the number of links to the site, higher the ranking.

There are serious issues with this “democratic” model of ranking information. One falsehood linked again and again can give it the same credence as a fact. This theory is just an extension of the corner-shop gossip analogy with one substantive difference – in a linked online world, the effects are not localized but global. The model is troubling especially given that more acerbic, vituperative articles very likely get linked more than the dry, measured pieces. To drive home the point, let me etch out a particularly troublesome outcome – a world where all the knowledge is hijacked by zealots of either persuasion.

The democratic idea of knowledge rests upon the twin facts that information choices are diverse enough on the Internet to allow people to choice of source that has the most accurate information and that people who see the source with “right information” will know it is the “right information” and will be involved enough to “vote” with their links to the site. The paradigm just ignores one key thing -Internet, counterintuitively, doesn’t allow many choices. Ahem…

Hegemony is not only a problem with the mass-communication world but also with the Internet model. We are right now emerging from decades of a communication model dominated by mass-media where only a few outlets controlled the majority of the information. From this relatively oligarchical model, we are moving to a “distributed” model. The key problem with this distributed model is firstly that it is not really distributed. It is, in fact, narrower – a vast majority of the people look for information using just three tools – Google, Yahoo, and MSN. While these search engines spit out millions of results to our queries, studies show that most people never get beyond the first page. In this media market, the information hierarchy is in fact even more entrenched.

The other key issue that is at the heart of the problem of determining the veracity of information on the Internet is the relative anonymity of the Internet. The pedigree of knowledge is an important part in establishing the veracity of a piece of information and the relative anonymity of the Internet has raised concerns about the veracity of the information on it.

So, in all the Internet poses unique challenges for the existence and acceptance of “real” knowledge.