The Edge Annual Question — 2010 asks “How is the Internet changing the way you think?”, with answers by (to borrow from the Edge description) “an array of world-class scientists, artists, and creative thinkers” that includes technology analyst Nicholas Carr, social software guru Clay Shirky, science historian George Dyson, and Web 2.0 pioneer Tim O’Reilly, among many others (Richard Dawkins, Nicholas Taleb, Marin Rees, Sean Carroll…). The landscape of social cognition is changing, and the authors offer many views and maps.
In my answer I discuss how the Internet boosts the growth of human knowledge in a way that is powerful and yet — by nature — almost invisible: It helps us see what’s missing:
THE WEB HELPS US SEE WHAT ISN’T THERE
As the Web becomes more comprehensive and searchable, it helps us see what’s missing in the world. The emergence of more effective ways to detect the absence of a piece of knowledge is a subtle and slowly emerging contribution of the Web, yet important to the growth of human knowledge. I think we all use absence-detection when we try to squeeze information out of the Web. I think it’s worth considering both how it works and how it could be be made more reliable and user-friendly.
The contributions of absence-detection to the growth of shared knowledge are relatively subtle. Absences themselves are invisible, and when they are recognized (often tentatively), they usually operate indirectly, by influencing the thinking of people who create and evaluate knowledge. Nonetheless, the potential benefits of better absence-detection can be measured on the same scale as the most important questions of our time, because improved absence-detection could help societies blunder toward somewhat better decisions about those questions.
Absence-detection boosts the growth of shared human knowledge in at least three ways:
Development of knowledge: Generally, for shared knowledge to grow, someone must invest effort to develop a novel idea into something more substantial (resulting in a blog post, a doctoral dissertation, or whatever). A potential knowledge-creator may need some degree of confidence that the expected result doesn’t already exist. Better absence-detection can help build that confidence — or drop it to zero and abort a costly duplication.
Validation of knowledge: For shared knowledge to grow, something that looks like knowledge must gain enough credibility to be treated as knowledge. Some knowledge is born with credibility, inherited from a credible source, yet new knowledge, supported by evidence, can be discredited by arguments backed by nothing but noise. A crucial form of evidence for a proposition is sometimes the absence of credible evidence against it.
Destruction of anti-knowledge: Shared knowledge can also grow through removal of of anti-knowledge, for example, by discrediting false ideas that had displaced or discredited true ones. Mirroring validation, a crucial form of evidence against the credibility of a proposition is sometimes the absence of credible evidence for it.
Identifying what is absent by observation is inherently more difficult than identifying what is present, and conclusions about absences are usually substantially less certain. The very idea runs counter to the adage, being based on the principle that absence of evidence sometimes is evidence of absence. This can be obvious: What makes you think there’s no elephant in your room? Of course, good intellectual housekeeping demands that reasoning of this sort be used with care. Perceptible evidence must be comprehensive enough that a particular absence, in a particular place, is significant: I’m not at all sure that there’s no gnat in my room, and can’t be entirely sure that there’s no elephant in my neighbor’s yard.
Reasonably reliable absence-detection through the Web requires both good search and dense information, and this is one reason why the Web becomes effective for the task only slowly, unevenly, and almost imperceptibly. Early on, an absence in the Web shows a gap in the Web; only later does an absence begin to suggest a gap in the world itself.
I think there’s a better way to detect absences, one that bypasses ad hocsearch by creating a public place where knowledge comes into focus:
We could benefit immensely from a medium that is as good at representing factual controversies as Wikipedia is at representing factual consensus.
What I mean by this is a social software system and community much like Wikipedia — perhaps an organic offshoot — that would operate to draw forth and present what is, roughly speaking, the best evidence on each side of a factual controversy. To function well would require a core community that shares many of the Wikipedia norms, but would invite advocates to present a far-from-neutral point of view. In an effective system of this sort, competitive pressures would drive competent advocates to participate, and incentives and constraints inherent in the dynamics and structure of the medium would drive advocates to pit their best arguments head-to-head and point-by-point against the other side’s best arguments. Ignoring or caricaturing opposing arguments simply wouldn’t work, and unsupported arguments would become more recognizable.
Success in such an innovation would provide a single place to look for the best arguments that support a point in a debate, and with these, the best counter-arguments — a single place where the absence of a good argument would be good reason to think that none exists.
The most important debates could be expected to gain traction early. The science of climate change comes to mind, but there are many others. The benefits of more effective absence-detection could be immense and concrete.
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