One of the books I had planned to review next was True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Salon tech & media blogger Farhad Manjoo. Manjoo argues that new communications technologies are loosening our culture’s grip on what people once called “objective reality.” Truth, he argues, is becoming a relative thing in a world of information overload.
But I’m not sure I need to review Manjoo’s book at all now since my comments would mostly repeat everything Steven Johnson had to say in his exchange with Manjoo on Slate last week. Here’s one clip from Johnson’s sharp response:
Saying that the Web amplifies deception is, to me, a bit like saying that New York is more dangerous than Baltimore because it has more murders. Yes, in absolute numbers, there are more untruths on the Web than we had in the heyday of print or mass media, but there are also more truths out there. We’ve seen that big, decentralized systems like open-source software and Wikipedia aren’t perfect, but over time they do trend toward more accuracy and stability. I think that will increasingly be the case as more and more of our news migrates to the Web.
That’s why I think it’s important to note that many of your key examples are dependent on old-style, top-down media distribution. You talk about the American public’s continuing belief in a connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein; the Swift Boat Veteran ads that distorted the truth of Kerry’s record; Lou Dobbs ranting on CNN. These are all distortions that speak to the power of the old mass-media model or the even older political model of the executive branch.
Anyway, read their entire exchange. I certainly think Johnson gets the better of it.