CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — In ninth grade, I had a Western Civilization teacher named Mr. Noe, who once asked us, “How do we know what we know?” The Noe-know-know trinity was too amusing to let go of: We forgot the philosophy lesson and made it a running four-year joke. We could not foresee, back in 1995, how great a role that question would play in our generation’s lives.
Today, isolating what we can know from mere noise is becoming the essential art of the educated: the skill, amid our convoluted and cacophonous digital-global conversation, to resolve for ourselves what so many gatekeepers of truth once resolved for us.
The government analyst who earlier relied on moles and covert operatives and newspaper reports now has uncountable millions of Twitter bulletins and Flickr pictures, submitted by genuine witnesses, ill-meaning rival governments and other interested parties. The canvas grows rich, but who is to know what is intelligence and what is distortion?
The adolescent preparing his first research paper has so many new sources at his disposal. The guidelines, though, warn him to use “authoritative” materials only. What qualifies? Is it dishonest for him not to mention Wikipedia, as the guidelines caution against doing, even though it is that site that leads him to so many of his primary sources?
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And so on with the investor picking up posts on Twitter about a bankruptcy, forced to decide whether to sell or hold; with the reporter who sees online that a dictator has resigned and wonders whether to repeat the news on Twitter or confirm it first; with the fair-minded ideologue whose sources all tell him that President Barack Obama was born abroad, because those sources rely entirely on one another.
As we all know, a major consequence of technology over the last many years has been to erode institutions of authority and shelter us in bubbles of personal truths. But now a contrary trend is forming: a number of groups working to bring back some of the authority and trust that has been lost.
A prominent attempt is SwiftRiver, which is affiliated with Ushahidi, an Internet platform of Kenyan origin that allows users to crowd-source real-time testimony during crises and then mounts the bits of testimony on a Google map.
SwiftRiver grew out of a problem of plenty. When Ushahidi’s map for the earthquake in Haiti went up, for example, information poured in, but it was information of varying quality levels: many fruitful tips on where to find survivors; some well-meaning tips with bad addresses; spam; outright misinformation. The solution, Ushahidi’s managers decided, was not to go back to the old way of making crisis maps, with five people around the conference table of a U.N. bungalow, but rather to invent tools to sift full-blooded digital truths from digital half-truths and digital lies.
SwiftRiver, which now operates as a start-up within Ushahidi, has gone on to create those tools and make them available to the public. They give users various ways of curating and adding context to the information that others put online through social media. You can find out who is talking about a particular subject; or eliminate people from a feed if other reliable people in their country or industry never echo them; or see long-term reliability scores for people you follow. SwiftRiver is developing a tool called RiverID, to match offerings from companies like Klout and PeerIndex, that will give those who sign up an authority score based on their influence online.
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When I spoke the other day to Jon Gosier, the director of SwiftRiver, he said something peculiar: that digital technology is, in a way, bringing us back to the days before the printing press.
“If there are two people in the 10th century, in two different continents, they have their local knowledge,” he said. “They have the people around them who define their worldview.” That was how it began. The invention of movable type, and then ever more sophisticated communication technologies, made it possible for people to get their truth not just from neighbors and cousins but over time from newspapers, television, radio and books.
“What’s happening now,” Mr. Gosier continued, “is that we’re going back to that earlier stage.” By this he meant that we again trust cousins and neighbors — though they may be virtual cousins and virtual neighbors — more than big, distant institutions.
Mr. Gosier does not think that this is a bad thing, and he has no desire to change it. Mass media, in his view, is a spent force. What can be done, though, is to give people more and fuller information to judge the virtual cousins and neighbors — their new gatekeepers of truth.
There is much hand-wringing these days about the decline of certain abilities in the digital age — of memory, of extended reading, of writing without shortened words. But it may be that new kinds of intelligences are being made. Perhaps the 14 year old who sends too many text messages and relies on less-than-respectable sources for papers also knows how to do things — in particular, filter and assess information online — that her parents do not.
If anything, the new tools are seeking to inculcate in a new generation of users the skepticism that the Walter Cronkite-watching generation perhaps lacked — and that Mr. Noe was perhaps trying to teach us in ninth grade.
As Mr. Gosier put it in a recent blog post, “SwiftRiver is constructed from the viewpoint that there are no absolute truths.”
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