Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Carl Trueman on the Dangers of the Free Press

Professor Carl Trueman has some less than positive comments on the expanded freedom of the press that has occurred in the Internet age. Per Trueman:
Yet even as this increasing freedom is to be welcomed, it is not without inherent problems. In the past, if I wanted to tell you my views on subatomic physics, the best an idiot like myself could have done was to self-publish a book on the subject; and as soon as bookstore managers and journal editors noticed that the book was published by the `Carl R Trueman Center for Really Very Complicated Scientific Inquiry', no mainstream bookshop would stock it and no reputable organ would review it. These days, however, I could simply start my own webpage or blog, and somebody out there - probably a bunch of my own besotted but unqualified and incompetent disciples - would take it seriously, flag up my works, surround my blogs and articles with praise, and make me look like a credible player in the internet world of subatomic research . Credible, that is, to anyone who took the web at face value and did not know anything about the subject or my own lack of any qualifications in the relevant field.
Of course, a similar problem occurred with the introduction of paper (reducing the cost of hand-copying manuscripts) and especially the introduction of the printing press (reducing the cost of reproducing text).

Trueman's nostalgia of the golden days before the Internet are mistaken, however. First, there was plenty of tripe that was carried by bookstores and published by publishers (obviously, in the opposite order). Why was it published and carried? Because the owners thought they would profit from it.

Second, the firehose of the Internet has its own mechanism for sorting out the tripe. There are reasons that certain sites get more traffic than others. Sometimes the mechanism is as simple as the economic mechanisms that drove bookstores in the pre-Internet era. It costs time and/or money to run a good website, and it costs time and/or money to drive visitors to one's website.

Sometimes the mechanism is the vox populi. The reason that certain blogs are popular is because people know writing that they like when they see it. Doug Wilson is a prime beneficiary of this effect. Likewise, a few blogs appeal on the basis of their substance, such as specialty blogs on niche topics.

There can be other effects as well, but the bottom line is that not all the millions of blogs get the same amount of shelf space in the Internet supermarket of ideas. Big, well-funded and well-filled sites get lots of space, and poorly funded and poorly managed sites get hardly any space.

So, having read my fair share of worthless e-pologetics (and perhaps my critics will say I've contributed more than my fair share), I still think that Trueman's concerns overlook the credibility signaling that does exist within the Internet. The same problems that existed before the Internet still exist - the additional problems are just a result of having more quantity of material now than ever before.

It's as though your favorite bookstore moved into a large warehouse, and now can stock even the most obscure self-published books. Actually, it's rather like what places like Amazon.com and BN.com have become.



AB said...

Not a bad corrective, TF. I still like Trueman's point, more broadly, that we must understand who it is we are reading. And if we don't know their credentials, well, their writing has to speak for itself then. Not a bad thing, for people to post anonymously, they just need to be that much better in comboxes if they take that route. Later.

David Shedlock said...

That seems to be the problem with the critics. They take a balanced statement like Trueman's and force him into an extreme position. He said he welcomes the broadening of the 1st Amenedment, isn't that enough to balance him out, something the detractors seem unwilling to do?