The Cretan philosopher Epimenides is famous for his paradoxical statement, All Cretans are liars. The paradox is pretty clear. If hes from Crete and tells you that Cretans lie, then his statement is itself a lie. But if hes lying when he says that Cretans are liars, then.... As Gilbert and Sullivan put it, a paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox.
Updating Epimenides is the internet paradox: all bloggers are liars. If you don’t believe me, consider the words of Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron Steele. In a 2005 decision protecting the anonymity of a blogger being sued for libel by a local politician, Judge Steele ruled that “Blogs … tend to be vehicles for the expression of opinions; by their very nature, they are not a source of facts or data upon which a reasonable person would rely.”
In law, only text interpreted by (reasonable) readers as factual can be libelous, and the learned judge believes that such readers don’t look to blogs for truth, so anything a blogger says is a lie. He adds that online lies are so easily corrected that blogs can’t fool anybody. Lies can’t hurt us if we expect them to be lies. The implications of this new legal doctrine are too complex to deal with here (besides, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV).
But Judge Steele is actually raising the blogger’s paradox. Bloggers may lie, but we read blogs for truth. A 2004 survey found that 86% of readers consider blogs to be useful sources of information, while 82% felt that TV news was, to put it mildly, counterfactual (I believe the term was actually “useless”), and slightly more than half also took a dim view of the truth-value of conventional newspapers and magazines.
In a more recent study, Stanford University researchers concluded over 46% of those surveyed judged the reliability of informational web sites not on their content but on their appearance. Apparently, while “You can’t tell a book by its cover” may be a cliché, it’s also wrong. It turns out that we buy everything based on its look, whether it’s a big ticket item like a room-sized plasma TV, a piece of intellectual property, like a book, or question of truth, like a news report.
The opinion of the Delaware Supreme Court notwithstanding, many of us have shifted our information-gathering from conventional print to online sources. One higher education reporter writes about a government staffer “working for an important policy-making arm of the U. S. government” who relies almost entirely for her research on Google and Wikipedia.
Of course price and accessibility direct our buying practices as well. So in addition to being seduced by web design, we "buy" information that we find on the ’net because the price is right, and because it’s there waiting for us to click on it.
That raises a concern: is a search that puts millions of free web pages at our fingertips in a matter of nanoseconds lulling us into thinking “If I can’t google it, either it doesn’t exist or it’s not worth finding”? How many of us who once thought nothing of spending hours in dusty libraries digging up hard to find nanofacts now give up if we don’t find what we’re looking for after a few clicks?
And if we do find something on the internet, then we’re faced with the blogger’s paradox, which is, is the information that we find online true?