In the course of a discussion of the relationship of truth to politics, and in particular liberalism, in his book, Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams discusses what kinds of institutions tend towards truth the most. The discussion is generally quite interesting, but for the time being I just want to draw attention to, and relatively briefly comment on, a passage about the internet (the book was published in 2002):
[T]he Internet shows signs of creating for the first time what Marshall McLuhan prophesied as a consequence of television, a global village, something that has the disadvantages both of globalization and of a village. Certainly it does offer some reliable sources of information for those who want it and know what they are looking for, but equally it supports that mainstay of all villages, gossip. It constructs proliferating meeting places for a free and unstructured exchange of messages which bear a variety of claims, fancies and suspicions, entertaining, supersitious, scandalous, or malign. The chances that many of these messages will be true are low, and the probability that the system itself will help anyone to pick out the true ones is even lower... [T]he global nature of these conversations makes the situation worse than in a village, where at least you might encounter and perhaps be forced to listen to some people who had different opinions and obsessions. As critics concerned for the future of democratic discussion have pointed out, the Internet makes it easy for large numbers of previously isolated extremists to find each other and only talk amongst themselves.
As elsewhere in the discussion, Williams' concern here is to undermine the idea that the best understanding of the marketplace of ideas as an approximation of an economic marketplace, to motivate the idea that restrictions on freedom to participate in a discussion can improve the tendency of a set of institutions towards truth. In this cause, he also points out that academic institutions, which one would think are at least both designed substanially with the intention of coming to the truth and generally more successful at doing so than society at large, do not generally resemble the market in that they have, amongst other things, significant barriers to entry and tend to reward truth or at least good arguments without too much regard for its instrumental value.
Given these points, that as a matter of design, institutions which have barriers to entry and tend to place an intrinsic value on truth tend to be better at coming to the truth than those which lack those features, I wonder whether Williams' critique of the Internet, undeniably familiar as it may be, is, as a generalization, overly pessimistic. Linking and the fact that at least recreational bloggers are interested, at least in part, in the truth, may provide to some degree the institutional features that he notes that the market can often lack. Maybe I'm too attached to the Habermasian ideas of deliberative democracy to gain the kind of detachment that would be needed to assess the institutional features of the Internet, and in particular, the *sigh* Blogosphere. On the other hand, in a phrase of R.H. Tawney which Williams quotes, we're not generally trying to sell pieces of paper with nonsense printed on one side and advertisements on the other.
Sarky comments about either the recent addition of adsense to this blog or the vague, rambling and often nonsensical nature of its content will not be appreciated, by the way (not that that's necessarily a reason not to make them).