Thursday, March 29, 2007

Objectivity and the Hive Mind -- News as a Link, Not an End

Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise gave a wonderful talk yesterday as this year's Norman E. Richardson Lecturer (one of Gettysburg's big philosophy events of the year). As good as her stuff is on-line, she's better live. Her talk took a look at collective knowledge production and one thread of it concerned the places where on-line communities can play a role in that process.

Hilary Putnam argues that we have a division of intellectual labor in producing knowledge and Lindsay argued that we now also have a division of labor between knowledge producers and knowledge disseminators. There is a split between the scientists who search for truth and the press that reports it. That split has meant that we are left with reporters who are assigned to beats they don't completely understand, put on deadlines that don't let them dig as deeply as they might, and are on understaffed and under-resourced bureaus that make he said/she said reporting all but a foregone conclusion.

But pointing to a case of her own reporting, Lindsay pointed out where the dissemination step could be a link in the knowledge production chain, rather than the end of the line. She cited the case of Julie Amero, a substitute teacher in Connecticut a who was using a computer in teaching a seventh grade class. The computer was infected with spyware and malware and after being barraged with pornographic pop-ups, she was fired and convicted of four felonies. Lindsay first reported on the story for AlterNet, but expressed a feeling that the story as it came out was too bare boned, that it told the story of a "Questionable Conviction" which was, she firmly believed, actually a gross miscarriage of justice, but as someone who did not have all the technical knowledge needed, was unable to nail down the story as she would have liked. (The case is quite tragic, please do read about it and if you can contribute to her defense fund.)

But then it hit the blogs and as Lindsay refers to it, the "hive mind". Suddenly, the expertise was there from a number of directions. The case began to be undermined and PC Magazine and eventually AP picked up the story. There is not a happy ending to the story, at least not yet, but the fact is that this woman who seems to have been railroaded at least has had some light shone upon her case gives some reason for hope.

What drew Lindsay's interest is that it happened because the news dissemination was not the end of the line. It was not merely a case of here are the facts, period, end of story. Rather, it was an open invitation for further investigation. This is, however, quite a different model than the press is built upon. The professionalization of media has taken the town square aspect away from reportage. When papers had clear viewpoints (as they still do in, say, Britain), there was understood to be an active intellectual role for the reader. The left-leaning outlets would always say one thing, while the right-leaning papers another, and you knew that critical faculties were required in determining rational belief.

But the adoption of objectivity as a meaningful standard in journalism has meant that the media has been able to see themselves as the arbiters of reality itself, that there is no room for further work once they have delivered truth unto thy readers, or at least that anything some further with the results of the reporting is mere opinion or speculation. According to the standard view, journalists are the definitive sources for rational belief, but under Lindsay's model, reporters are facilitators for wider work by the distributive intelligence of the community at-large.

Is this a sustainable model? Does there need to be a central check placed upon the community to avoid group-think or will its own skeptical concerns be enough to keep it honest? Will the role of journalists change overall or will this remain something that happens on the margin? Will it be a gradual conversion or are we on the cusp of something significant in terms of the way that we come across facts and ways that the facts can be made sense of?