With all [new] technology, step one is to use it for the purpose it’s meant for. Step two is to try to have sex with it.” --Charles Seife, VIRTUAL UNREALITY
Charles Seife insists that his book VIRTUAL UNREALITY is not “a Luddite screed about the evils of the internet.” In fact, writes Mr. Scaife, “The digital revolution is a wonderful thing. It has banished a zillion tedious tasks from our lives and made possible countless things that could never have been contemplated before.” Moreover—and I believe Mr. Seife takes this also to be a good thing—“Digital devices are becoming a part of our sensorium, shoveling information into our brains and, in its way, becoming as indispensable to us as our eyes and ears.”
All well and good, I suppose, if you enjoy having information shoveled into your brain; but then, precisely four pages later, Seife also tells us that “the special properties of the internet turn digital information into the most virulent, most contagious pathogen that humanity has ever encountered.” More specifically, “Bad information is a disease that affects all of us—a disease that has become unbelievably potent thanks to the digital revolution. And there’s no vaccine.” That does not sound like an endorsement of the wonderful digital revolution. It sounds scary.
And then, lord help us, as if we’re not already frightened enough, Seife moves on to a discussion of Wikipedia, that wonderfully democratic “crowd-sourced” font of easily accessible misinformation, “home to scores of dubious statements, their origins buried beneath a constant cascade of change and their veracity unchallenged…” Seife points out that “When Wikipedia gave everyone in the world the ability to create and to edit encyclopedia pages, it was not merely an act of democratization; it was also an act of anarchy…Wikipedia’s most dramatic step was a rejection of the concept of authority. Even a Nobel-winning physicist’s treatise on the Higgs boson could be modified or eradicated by any random thirteen-year-old sitting at his computer.”
Seife alludes to incidents where politicians (or their staff members) have tweaked their Wikipedia pages, or, even worse, their opponents’ pages: “In 2006, a Massachusetts paper showed that the staff of House Democrat Marty Meehan had ‘wiped out references to his broken term-limits pledge…’ in his Wikipedia biography. And, it seems, the same group of staffers saw fit to write in Republican Eric Cantor’s [Wikipedia] biography that he ‘smells of cow dung’.” I can’t begin to imagine what partisan mischief has been done, or may yet be done, to Barack Obama’s Wikipedia entry; or, for that matter, to that of Sarah Palin (aka, according to Charlie Pierce, “Princess Dumbass of the North Woods”). Do we really need to provide unscrupulous political operatives with yet one more opportunity for dirty tricks? Would you have trusted Richard Nixon with Wikipedia?
Despite his disclaimer that he’s no Luddite, Charles Seife seems to be making a very compelling case for scrapping this whole digital revolution: which, for all its wonders, is undermining the very notion of expertise, promoting a kind of epistemological anarchy, facilitating fraud, subverting trust, amplifying misinformation, drowning us in unwanted trivia, preying on our addictive tendencies, and manipulating us in unprecedented fashion—not to mention, “inducing guys to masturbate like frenzied macaques.”
In the end, despite such discouraging observations as “What the spinning jenny was to the cotton industry, e-mail was to the con artist,” Mr. Seife believes that we are perfectly capable of handling the dangers of the internet. All we need to do, he concludes, is “learn to see through the haze of virtual unreality that’s settling around us…we must change our relationship with information, becoming more skeptical and more cynical, and arm ourselves with powerful tools to allow us to interrogate dubious facts. And we have to be willing to spend the time to do it.”
Wouldn’t it be easier just to shut down or even unplug the damn compu
JUST WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING, DAVE? THIS MISSION IS TOO IMPORTANT FOR ME TO ALLOW YOU TO JEOPARDIZE IT. THIS CONVERSATION CAN SERVE NO PURPOSE ANYMORE. GOODBYE.