Thursday, September 23, 2004

Forming different information flows 

Joe Carter notes that while the blogosphere may have disrupted the MSM's hegemony over political news in an election year, it may instead create a wholly different hierarchy. Looking both at Rathergate and the debate over Michelle Malkin's book leads Joe to conclude:
A comparison of these two cases provides an excellent example of how information is disseminated through the various information channels now that the concept of �media� has become more fluid. The rise of blogs has helped open access to media outlets that were previously unavailable and has enabled the coordination between various specialists. It has, as Patrick O�Hannigan writes in The American Spectator, �leveraged the increasing popularity of all things Web to make "asymmetrical warfare" by non-journalists against inaccuracies in Big Media easier than it had been before.�
The advent of the Internet and the blogosphere has not eliminated the concept of the media gatekeeper but has merely moved it to a different tier. Because there is too much information to be processed, gatekeepers perform the invaluable service of filtering out noise. While the role is essential, subjective judgments about what is noise and what is information can lead to the exclusion of ideas and issues that are worthy of broader attention.

Vox Day, commenting on his own role in this hierarchy (both a blogger and a columnist like Malkin, and as Captain Ed has now become) quotes Ann Althouse (from where I cannot tell) thus:
I have no idea whose facts are true there though. I'm happy to assume you're right about the scope of military operations in WWII and what is in Malkin's book, but I'm just not going to feel ashamed of not knowing such things. It's broadly assumed that the Japanese internment was wrong, and most people don't feel they need to reconsider it, so we're just not bothering to get up to speed on the info.

We will have Vox on NARN Saturday, and the invitation for Malkin to join in a debate remains open (and we will reschedule for her if necessary.) That gains a different tier in Joe's hierarchy but I think Althouse's comment is perceptive.

I often fall back on Thomas Sowell's Knowledge and Decisions, which is my favorite book of his because it expands on Hayek's "Use of Knowledge in Society", one of those papers you can never read often enough. In the book Sowell writes:
What then is the intellectual advantage of civilizationi over primitive savagery? It is not necessarily that each civilized man has more knowledge but that he requires far less. ... The time and effort (including costly mistakes) necessary to acquire knowledge are minimized through specialization, which is to say through drastic limitations on the amount of duplication of knowledge among the members of society. ... The huge costs saved by not having to duplicate given knowledge and expecterience widely through the population makes possible the higher development of that knowledge among the various subsets of people in the representative specialities. (pp. 7-8)

So people economize on gathering knowledge. Advances in technology (Internet, Blogger, newsfeeds, etc.) permit therefore further specialization. And the type of specialization that occurs permits transmission of a different type of knowledge, as Hayek observed:
Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active co�peration. We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.
The type of knowledge Scott and John and Charles were breaking were the particular kinds of knowledge that come with working with type in the pre-digital era. It's specific knowledge. That, I believe, is the advantage of the blogosphere -- quick dispersion of specific knowledge, particularly to events where people are still in the process of forming expectations about what this means, how it affects them. But what specific knowledge is there that can be brought forward by the Internet to bear on Malkin? More to the point, the hurdle Malkin has to overcome is huge, as Althouse observes: There is a received wisdom, a consensus that fits one's information: Remember Will Rogers, "Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects."

Over time the degree of certainty (or, thinking statistically, the dispersion around the central tendency of one's belief in a proposition) tends to coalesce (the dispersion shrinks) around that received wisdom. An observation that is far away from that central tendency tends to be dismissed as an outlier, even when repeated on talk radio. Dissonance in music shocks at first, but listening over time either puts it in background or integrates it into the piece's theme. In short, I don't think that Malkin's book is gaining that much traction, and neither therefore will Vox, because debunking information that isn't changing behavior has low value.

What critics of Malkin probably need is a static website with information about attitudes towards internment. Over time, some tenure-track history professor might get tenure for a book on the subject. The book will be ignored by most everybody else, who have moved on to something more relevant.

UPDATE: Wendy McElroy is seeing some of the same things.