Monday, April 21, 2008

A Victory of Information over Experience?

In an article published in The Times of April 18, 2008, Ben Macintyre comments on writers who have written travel diaries about countries they have never, in fact, visited. His first example is from around 1850, the second from 2008. (See Economical with the truthiness.) He concludes that (i) "bogus travel writing has a long and inglorious history," and (ii) that the more recent example "is representative of a wider and more modern malaise: writers reviewing books they have not read, politicians claiming to have braved dangers they never faced, novelists depicting places they have not seen, memoirists describing a past that never happened, journalists making up stories about people that never existed, and, most pernicious of all, writers simply cutting and pasting words they have not written." He then claims: "This is the victory of information over experience. In Wiki-world, where so much semi-reliable information is available at the push of a button, there is no need to see something first-hand in order to be able to describe it with conviction and authority. A comparison of Paris guidebooks reveals entire chunks of identical text for some tourist spots: why actually visit somewhere to find out what it is like when one can merely paste together a version of reality?"

It's difficult to disagree with with his first conclusion: "bogus travel writing has a long history." In one sense, it would also be difficult to disagree with the second conclusion, namely, that we are facing a "wider" problem or "malaise" with semi-reliable information and plagiarism in various forms. But it is difficult to see why this is a "more modern" problem. As his lead-in shows, the problem or malaise is as old as modernity (and probably a little older).

It is just false to say that this "is the victory of information over experience" or a characteristic of the "wiki-world." Mere information and experience, or perhaps better: knowledge, have always existed together, and information always brought with it the danger of crowding out knowledge and experience. It has always taken critical minds to distinguish mere appearance and truth. How quickly semi-reliable information is available does not fundamentally change our ability to investigate and examine it. The "victory of information over experience" is also a mere appearence. Furthermore, it has little to do with "wiki-world," simply because there is no such thing. A wiki is a tool, not a world. Like any tool, it can be used to do a variety of things: some of them good, some of them less good.

"Why actually visit somewhere to find our what it is like when one can merely paste together a version of reality?" What about: "To find out which version is preferable?" Experience and knowledge are not just occasions for a descriptions "with conviction and authority," they can be ends in themselves. Wikis can be helpful in achieving these ends.

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