Friday, 17 April 2009

What is truth? The Internet and Provisional Knowledge

The Internet has changed how the majority of people go about accessing information and certainly for most people under the age of 40 it has become the first port of call. This trend is only set to increase in line with wider, easier access through mobile devices and ubiquitous free wifi.

But the Internet has done more than just make more information more readily available. It has democratised the publication of knowledge as well. TV, newspaper and book editors are no longer the gatekeepers of our knowledge. The age of the editorially appointed expert is over and we have now shifted to the collective knowledge of the crowd.

Interestingly mass participation in knowledge sharing has increased our access to a greater range of information; and, despite fears to the contrary, it has not diminished the quality of what is published. Studies comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopaedia Britannica conclude that both are equally accurate. Britannica is written by acclaimed experts in their fields but provides a fixed snapshot of knowledge; whereas Wikipedia, although written by self-selecting enthusiasts, is organic and therefore remains up to date. Of course, the democratisation of knowledge publication is not without risk - it is possible for an ignorant or malicious editor to hijack a particular Wikipedia entry, but the revision mechanisms within the community ensure that articles become refined and more accurate through the editing process.

The publication of knowledge on the Internet raises a wider philosophical question about the nature of what we know to be true. It is rational that we hold all knowledge as “provision” – i.e. held as being true until such time as it is proven to be false. This is a fundamental tenet of scientific method, where laws are held to be true until such time as they are proven wrong [think Newton being refined by Einstein]. There was a temptation in the print era, to consider anything that had passed the editorial gatekeepers to be true. Wikipedia by its very nature is “provisional” – it is true until such time as it is next revised. The Wikipedia model is a welcome reminder not to take all that we read as “gospel” and that all knowledge is to a lesser or greater extent “provisional”.


  1. There's interesting meta-cognitive philosophy in this post and it's good to be reminded of the epistemological challenges that our shared knowledge economy is fostering upon us; regardless of how little many people seem to appreciate the seismic shift it's creating.

    What you don't mention, but is relevant, is the general inability of most users (both young and older) to apply critical criteria to facts obtained online. It is as if the trust we have imbued in the printed word has seeped seamlessly into the collective conscience of online users.

    Promoting a detached analysis of any content provided online will become an essential skill, as the repository of knowledge continues to move from the printed to the digital domain.

  2. So the Gospels are not in fact "gospel"..?