09 December 2009

Pilate asked: What is truth?

Yesterday my brother sent me, without comment, a Discovery Channel News link referencing the speculatively constructed and partially animated version of Tiger Woods' automotive mishap. This morning, I found that Thinking through my fingers takes this same video as the starting point for a consideration of where our opportunities for accessing “true” news are heading. (Looking back, I see that TTMF referenced the same video a week earlier; but I didn't pick up on it.)

On the face of it, a very obviously constructed fiction (and one in which Woods, and his wife, and even the physics of real life movement, are scarcely recognisable) should be of little concern to anyone except the Woods family and their lawyers. It exists in the same intellectual space as Ice age 3: the dawn of the dinosaurs about which I grumbled recently. But that is disingenuous; the reality is that very few news consumers give much critical consideration to their sources, and very many make only blurred distinctions between fiction and nonfiction.

On the other hand, to start crying that the dividing line is being eroded between imaginative interpretation and objective reportage is equally disingenuous. I doubt that there has ever been such a distinction; certainly I cannot remember a time when it existed outside the platonic ideal in the minds of its champions (of which I, for the record, am one – if not a very active or heroic one). "Briefing against" is at east as old as China's "warring states period (476-221 BCE); eighteenth and nineteenth century press in Europe and the Americas offered political commentary skewed and invented to a degree unrivalled today; and Ray Girvan recently offered, over at JSBlog, an example of a 19th century "tabloid smear" against ordinary people. Truth has always been an elusive, provisional, partial thing, and finding even a worthwhile approximation to it has always been a process of determined exploration and detective work.

That last sentence is where TTMF starts: that "truth" (of even the blurred and provisional variety) can only be found (even by those actively seeking it) if somebody is somewhere telling it. Or, more accurately, if enough sources genuinely trying to tell it can be found and compared.

What concerns me even more is that as the volume of information sources multiplies, the fragmentarily "true" is ever harder to find. Whether or not disinformation is proliferating faster than information is a moot point about which we can all argue forever on the head of a pin, but is irrelevant. As the haystack grows exponentially, the pins will become harder to find even if they proportionally keep pace.

I don't suggest that anything be done about this, even if that were possible (which it is not): I would deplore central censorship of dis/information flow even more. But I do dispute the widespread idea that ever greater flow of information form every greater numbers of sources is synonymous with "more truth". The vital importance of critical thinking by consumers about sources and their content increases as a direct function of information volume.

I realise, belatedly, that this is little more than a rehash of my Whither democracy post, almost two years ago ... ah, well; “I grow old ... I grow old”* ... at least I stopped short of requoting Lem!

  • T S Eliot, "The love song of J Alfred Prufrock", line 120, in Prufrock and other observations. 1917, London: The Egoist Ltd.

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