Tuesday, December 13, 2016

This Is the Dawning of the Age of the Internet

Let me procrastinate a bit on another post I'm in the middle of by writing this one.  It all ties together in the end anyway.
I disagree rather strongly with a recent post by Bodhipaksa on Fake Buddha Quotes on the more general issue of misquotation in the age of the Internet.  He quoted a paper by Giovanni Gaetani, on misquotations of the philosopher Albert Camus.  Like so:
Nonetheless, we underestimate [the] Internet’s impact on literature and philosophy: ever since everyone has the power to say his personal opinion about everything, even when he is a total incompetent about the subject; ever since everyone can quote a writer without feeling the need to report the source and ever since everyone seems to not care at all about sources, believing in everything he sees on Internet, every quote has completely lost reliability.
There's a fair amount of Occidental hyperbole in this paragraph: "everyone seems to not care at all about sources," etc.  But everyone has always had the power to say his personal opinion about everything.  Before literacy became widespread, anybody could stand outside and announce that he (less often she) was filled with the Holy Spirit and you'd better listen.  Often people did.  Often they didn't.  There was always rumor, and folklore, and sources had a way of disappearing after a couple of iterations.  You could never be sure who had said something, and the same sayings were attributed to different sages.

After writing was invented, there was the problem of forgeries, or pseudepigrapha as they're more delicately known.  Who composed the Homeric poems?  No one knows, so it's convenient and not unreasonable to ascribe them to Homer.  Other poems were ascribed to the same author, though probably they were not his.  Works were written in the name of Plato and other philosophers.  You'll find that many ancient works from the Greco-Roman world were written by Pseudo-guys.

Only those who believe everything they see in print take for granted that all the books in the Bible were written by the authors tradition assigns to them.  All but the most conservative scholars believe that not all the letters ascribed to the apostle Paul in the New Testament were actually written by him, and many enterprising people wrote in the name of this or that patriarch, apostle, or hanger-on; many people took their word for it.  Some scholars will tell you that it was commonplace and accepted to write pseudepigrapha in those days, but while it was commonplace, it wasn't accepted. Many writers denounced such works.  Whoever wrote Second Thessalonians, for example, warned readers not to be fooled by letters "as though from us" (2.2), indicating that forged letters in Paul's name were already circulating in his lifetime -- which is ironic if, as many scholars believe, Second Thessalonians was not itself written by Paul.  (How better to distract attention from one's own deception than by calling someone else a deceiver?)

Before the Internet came along in my own lifetime, many rumors and legends circulated: that queers wore yellow (or was it green?) on Tuesdays (or was it Thursdays?), for instance.  That Franklin Delano Roosevelt was actually a Jew, who had syphilis not polio.  At about the time I graduated from high school, the myth that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a lookalike began to circulate, and it persists to this day; even many people who don't believe it still think that the Beatles were responsible for the story and had put clues about it in their songs and on their album covers.  Some of these canards circulated orally, others were mimeographed or printed cheaply on offset presses.  It was often impossible to track such falsehoods to their source, and not many people cared much.  If they liked what they heard, they believed it; if not, they scoffed.   And although most people are acquainted with the concept of "urban legends," popularized by the folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, they still readily believe them.  The people who post lists of criteria for discerning fact from deception generally fail to observe them themselves.

The Internet has increased the reach of ordinary people, and the speed with which information travels and spreads.  But the difference is one of degree, not kind.  True, anyone with Internet access can express his or her opinions, regardless of competence, but most that is posted on the Internet will never be seen by more than a few people.  No one can predict when a given posting will go viral.

Do people believe everything they see on the Internet?  Of course not; that's more Occidental hyperbole.  People believe what they want to believe, and ignore what they don't want to believe.  So, for example, my Third Right-Wing Acquaintance boasted that since she couldn't tell who was telling the truth on the Internet, she just believed what she found congenial.  Many other people do the same, but are less forthright about it.

Bodhipaksa quotes another passage from Gaetani:
During my research I have contacted many bloggers, asking them where Camus should have written/said this or that; their answer was always the same: «check it on Google». Indeed, their reasoning was simple but tremendously naïve: if a quote is reported by so many people – millions of references in some cases – the author of this quote “must” be Albert Camus.
I believe that it's much easier now, in the age of the Internet, to find out whether a given quotation is authentic or not.  It helps that there are sites like Quote Investigator and Wikiquote, to say nothing of Fake Buddha Quotes itself, where people do a lot of the necessary detective work.  But something else is going on here.  Bodhipaksa remarks, "I paraphrase this attitude as 'It must be true. I read it on the internet.'" It's true, many people believe this, or act as if they do.  But how different is it from saying, say, "It must be true, I read it in the Bible"?  Or "I heard it on the news"?  Much of the current concern about "fake news" is explicitly intended to recall people to the fold shepherded by traditional authority: print media, the three big television networks, government officials -- the right government officials, meaning those of one's favored party.  Yet these authorities have discredited themselves again and again, with no accountability, and have never been particularly reliable.  Who is competent to have an opinion?  The general answer is: the same wise, credentialed, responsible commentators your parents trusted.  But those people got us into the mess we're in now, and have no idea how to get us out of it except to proffer more of the same.

In narrow domains, where comparatively little is at stake -- Camus studies, say -- credentialed authority can be relied on much of the time.  It's fairly easy to tell whether a saying ascribed to Jesus is authentic or not, if you agree to limit authenticity to the contents of the four canonical gospels: they're not very long, they've been studied and indexed exhaustively, and it's easy enough to look up a saying you're not sure about to see if it can be found in them.  The same is true for the Buddhist scriptures, though there are more of them.  But where much is at stake  -- the national or world economy, international conflicts that could turn into war, etc. -- it's harder to know whom to trust  For one thing, the credentialed authorities disagree with each other.  As with the variety of religions in the world, they can't all be true; how can you know whose claims to believe?  For another, they often lie, and it's difficult for us ordinary schmucks to know when they're lying. These are problems that, like the poor, have always been with us and probably always will.  It's not because of the Internet that we don't know what to do about them.  I'd say, however, that anyone who blames the Internet for our difficulty in knowing what is true is probably not to be trusted.