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The Post-Google Crisis of Truth

Earlier this week, on August 23rd, netizens celebrated Internaut Day and the supposed birth of the World Wide Web 25 years ago. That this technological anniversary did not pass uncontested illustrates Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner’s July 12th essay about the “diminishing status of truth” in the present digital age, made all the more apparent by the Brexit maelstrom and partisan politicking of the ongoing US elections.

Viner’s concern stems from the eroding authority of journalistic establishments and the current ease with which “false information” can be published, circulated, and accepted as gospel, but the thrust of the article is the chaos that surrounds truth in the public sphere.

The echo chamber of social media, and the algorithms designed to respond to (and preserve) our preferences, don’t lend themselves to constructive public discourse. Instead, “the levelling of the information landscape has unleashed new torrents of racism and sexism and new means of shaming and harassment, suggesting a world in which the loudest and crudest arguments will prevail.”

An even more recent Los Angeles Times review on an anthology of American essays edited by John D’Agata, and about the theme of uncertainty, puts this entire quandary into context: “This is not the first time a revolution in information technology has resulted in a crisis of veracity.”

From Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” (a term he coined in 1964 to address the interconnectedness of culture because of mass media) to Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ to documented reactions to the emergence of the printing press in the 15th century — humans have habitually speculated about the implications of technological advances on their notions of truth.

Like Viner, D’Agata recognises the abundance of information at our disposal and the need to identify a way of navigating it. For Viner, the role of the rigorous journalist in upholding “traditional news values” has never been more crucial; to her, this is the process of “reporting, verifying, gathering together eyewitness statements, [and] making a serious attempt to discover what really happened.”

For D’Agata, what is needed, “with so much raw data now available to us,” goes beyond reporting and aggregating and is more about the possibilities that come out of shaping and making. This process, according to D’Agata, is “gorgeous” and “messy” — and one presumes, gorgeous because it is messy; it is, like Viner’s proposal, “an attempt,” but the attempts that D’Agata speaks of “are as much about apprenticeships with knowing, as they are with failure too.” The ambiguity and the humility that it inspires are just as important.

The “diminishing status of truth” is not a cause for alarm in itself. Truth varies with perspective. A lack of empathy and of respect, and a quickness to judge and to react, are the real threats.

To borrow the words of John Berger, as he concludes the first episode of his four-part BBC series, ‘Ways of Seeing’: “You receive images and meanings which are arranged. I hope you will consider what I arrange, but be skeptical of it.”