What happens to knowledge in a digital world?
15 January 2013
There is an endless amount of knowledge available on the internet, but also an endless supply of rubbish. How are we to know whether the sites that search engines locate and place at the top of their list of suggestions are really of any value? And what happens when we rely more and more on knowledge being available on the web, rather than in our own heads?
These are some of the questions that have arisen from time to time in debates over the past few decades. Now, two research teams at Lund University have received a grant of over SEK 18 million to tackle these issues over four years. The money will mainly go to fund salaries for all participants. One group is made up of theoretical philosophers who will study knowledge, truth and trust on the internet from a philosophical perspective, while the other group is composed of library and information scientists who will investigate people’s attitudes and behaviours around the internet from a cultural science perspective.
“It is gratifying that such a large project grant can go to a pure humanities project. They are usually awarded mostly to engineering and medicine”, says Professor of Theoretical Philosophy Erik J. Olsson.
His collaboration with Olof Sundin, Professor of Library and Information Sciences, is relatively recent. It was in the winter, when the Swedish Research Council announced framework grants on the theme of "Digital society", that the idea of collaboration arose – an idea which proved to be very successful.
Erik J. Olsson’s own interaction with the internet mainly takes the form of Google searches.
”Google is very useful. But at the same time, it is odd that we leave it to this commercial enterprise to determine what is relevant to us”, he says.
Olof Sundin is more active on the internet and uses both Twitter and Facebook in his work.
“Many of the articles I read have been suggested to me through these social networks. It is a sort of intelligence work that is important to many researchers today. But even in this, we are dependent, for better or worse, on assessments that others have made for us”.
As the researchers only received their major grant fairly recently, and the project will not be officially underway until next year, the Olsson-Sundin team have not yet got any results to report. But they are happy to discuss the issues that the project plans to address. One of these concerns the way in which Google and other search engines sort and present their material. Google’s system is based on putting webpages to which many people have linked highest up on the results page.
“It is basically the same system as within research: researchers with many citations get a higher status!” says Olof Sundin.
The difference, and what can make this type of ”popularity vote” a problem on Google, is that researchers’ texts can be presumed to maintain a certain minimum level with regard to quality and reliability. For other texts, there is no such minimum standard. Therefore strange things can happen, such as when you search for ”moon landings” you can get a highly-ranked link to a blog that claims that the Apollo project was a massive bluff.
Are there really that many conspiracy theorists – who see hidden agendas and shady manipulations in everything from space projects to climate threats and the white trails that follow aeroplanes? Perhaps not, but if they are active and internet-savvy, they can get quite far, Olof Sundin explains.
”Blogs often appear high up on Google results pages. And if a blog belongs to a network in which people know how to optimise their pages so that they gain maximum visibility in internet searchers, they can get placed extra high”, explains Olof Sundin.
In some ways it was simpler before, when daily newspapers were the principal source of information, agree both researchers. Then everyone knew that Aftonbladet was left-leaning and that Svenska Dagbladet was more conservative, and that opinions were expressed in editorials whereas news items were - at least theoretically - non-political. The product declaration for modern digital information is different.
”This does not apply only to the web, but also to the apps that we have in our mobile phones. For example, I have an app which is supposed to help me become a better consumer, by providing me with information on the products in grocery stores. Along with the information, it communicates norms on the environment, health and ethics”, says Olof Sundin.
Another issue to be addressed within the project is what happens when more and more knowledge is made external. Perhaps nobody will miss the memory chants of “an, auf, hinter, in, neben, über” or “Viskan, Ätran, Nissan och Lagan”, but don’t we risk impoverishing ourselves if we entrust more and more to external searches?
“There is a philosophical theory that claims all methods which produce trustworthy knowledge are good. Another theory, on the other hand, claims that understanding occurs first in your own head, and that you need quite a lot of knowledge in your head in order to interpret the new knowledge you acquire”, says Erik J. Olsson.
In addition to this, points out Olof Sundin, you can’t trust that everything on the internet will always be available. Information can be restricted by commercial agents, in some countries social media can be blocked by censors and Wikipedia could be discontinued for financial reasons. If we have then come to rely only on these media, we risk suddenly finding ourselves with no knowledge suppliers.
These issues are particularly pressing in schools, where teachers today already choose different approaches to their pupils’ reliance on the internet. Here the Library and Information Sciences experts are planning to interview teachers and school management, among other things.
The remaining two questions concern control and trust on the internet. The internet provides enormous freedom, which has benefited the opposition in China and participants in the Arab spring, for example. At the same time, this freedom can be abused by internet haters who spew their bile in the comment fields of online newspapers and blogs. Here the researchers will study how norms emerge and how various positions can be justified through philosophical argument.
Finally, with regard to trust, the philosophers are to use game theory and computer simulations to study the risks and benefits of bluffing, and what these mean for people’s trust in various websites. The Library and Information scientists, on the other hand, will look at how researchers use social media, not least how they choose to present themselves to their contacts on the internet.
Since the SEK 18 million take the form of a framework grant, both research teams will be able to add new lines of research and study concepts in the future.
“We are not bound by a plan of action that describes exactly what we will be doing for four years. It is unusual and wonderful to have room for manoeuvre, and important not least in this field where so much is happening all the time”, says Olof Sundin.
Text: Ingela Björck
The internet project in brief
The project “Knowledge in a digital world” is to run between 2013 and 2017 and involves 10 people plus visiting researchers.
The project’s four parts deal with search engines, outsourcing of knowledge, filtering and control on the internet, and trust versus mistrust.
The results are to be presented to the research community in the form of articles, books and international workshops, and to the general public via blogs, Twitter, newsletters and open activities.
Erik J. Olsson has been very successful in this year’s round of grant allocations. In addition to the framework grant for the internet project described in the main article, he has also been awarded an individual research grant for a project on group decisions. Its main question is whether there is a “collective competence”, so that decisions are better for being taken by many, or whether group pressure makes everyone follow the most influential group member.
Kerstin Hesselgren’s visiting professorship for outstanding female researchers also went, through an application from Erik J Olsson, to the Division of Theoretical Philosophy. The division will thereby host a six-month visit from Professor Ulrike Hahn from London.
“It feels like an improbable jackpot to get all three applications approved!” says Erik J. Olsson.
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