An ingenious overview of a wildly unreliable Internet.
Seife (Journalism/New York Univ.; Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, 2010, etc.) recounts the story of a Scottish blogger who, frustrated when his opinions on the Middle East were ignored, reinvented himself as a lesbian Syrian activist in war-torn Damascus and became a media star. Constructing an alternative reality once required an entire totalitarian state. Now a single person can do it, as online information moves around the world with the speed of light. It can be stored in virtually no space, copied with perfect fidelity at little cost and altered just as easily. Photoshop has changed the face of fraud. In 1990, image manipulation made up 3 percent of scientific misconduct, but by 2008, it had risen to nearly 70 percent. Most of the trillion emails sent every few days are spam, and most of several hundred million blogs are unreadable. Experts wrote traditional encyclopedias, while Wikipedia is open to anyone regardless of expertise. It’s more comprehensive and easier to navigate but nagged by propaganda, vandalism and hoax articles that may persist for years since, in the relentlessly democratic ethos of the Internet, those who detect them have no more authority than the fakers. Intelligent thinking depends on our ability to tell good authorities from bad, writes the author, but the avalanche of free information at our fingertips is marginalizing gatekeepers of the truth (reporters, editors, scholars), who cost money and work slowly. Googling for expertise turns up too many opinionated sources that may not even be human. Seife seeks “not to rail against the Internet, but to act as a guide for the skeptic [with] a handbook for those who wish to understand how digital information is affecting us.”
Readers of this disturbing but entirely convincing account need to remind themselves that the Internet is pretty useful, but they will not deny that it teems with garbage.