11. Epistemology and the Internet
Nobody can be told what the matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
— Morpheus, in The Matrix (1999)
Much of epistemology, like much of philosophy, focuses on what stays the same in human experience regardless of technological progress: we know the truths about ordinary things, like how many people are in our family, or whether it is raining, or whether we are hungry. The truths about such ordinary things hold as well for 21st-century astronauts as for neolithic people. But this does not mean that technology cannot offer new kinds of philosophical questions and provide new possible philosophical answers. The wise philosopher is the one who can reliably discern what stays the same and when a difference really makes a difference.
The advent of the internet in the late 20th century is a difference that makes a difference. It has changed economic and political landscapes, and it has deeply transformed our sense of art, culture, and communication. Most of the world’s population now takes for granted that they are able to locate themselves quite precisely on the globe and come into near-instantaneous communication with nearly anyone else on it, and they also can access virtually the entirety of human knowledge and human history through a device they carry in a pocket. Perhaps it is as true as ever that truth is truth and knowledge requires justification, but what is believed, what is known, how it comes to be known have changed about as dramatically as can be imagined.
But along with this profound transformation in knowledge, there is a rising tide of false knowledge, or claims that seem to be knowledge but, in fact, are not. Paradoxically, this has made knowledge both easier and harder to get, since we have such easy access to a great domain of knowledge that is thoroughly entangled with lies, deceptions, distortions, and misinformation. To be responsible knowers, we need to develop new skills, new questions, and new sensibilities, for we are living now in a world quite different from the world in which we evolved.
We will begin by trying to put the epistemological changes brought on by the internet into a historical perspective. Then, we will turn to the crucial topic of algorithms and the role they play in our interactions with the internet. We will then conclude with some observations of the challenges forced by internet epistemology.