Towards an epistemology of the internet

May 23, 2007

Since the internet became truly popular, the media and government have been obsessed with the shakiness of knowing anything for sure on the internet. Children especially are warned not to believe anything about strangers on the internet, but adults as well are occasionally paraded out to tell their stories of being defrauded by misleading websites or on the lam Nigerian royalty.

These are worthwhile endeavors to those concerned, but my own interest is in how people will make a very large deal about epistemologically dicey propositions online and what is at stake in these claims. Though these issues have been in the back of my head for a long time – inspired in large part by the reactions to rumors of new Apple products – a new opportunity has arisen to make my thoughts more concrete.

Above is a flying craft that has been (reportedly) spotted and photographed by several denizens of the internet. The issue of the veracity of the photographs doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the reactions of other people to them.

In the comments to this picture, we find the most sustained and detailed discussion of these photos around. The commenters can be divided into five types: believers who offer positive proof of the photos’ veracity, believers who attack the narrow-mindedness of their detractors, a similar bifurcation amongst non-believers, and those who are undecided but open to either possibility.

In every case where a commenter takes a definite stand, that stand has, to some degree or another, been influenced by viral marketing ploys and more recreational hoaxes that have been spotted around the internet. What is at stake then, when a person comments in support or non-support for the reality of a photo, is the issue of experience. Believers say things such as NASAnerd1947 does: “I’m not an expert on faking digital images, but I have studied the field of electric and electromagnetic propulsion as a professional aerospace engineer.” (S)he acknowledges the possibility of faking, while at the same time designating this instance as an exception through an appeal to her or his experience. On the other hand, doubters like fxmodels say things like, “[H]e started by modeling a BF Goodrich All Terrain Tire and got bored!!! He smooth shifted, beveled and Nurnied. Those three things take about an hour in any reasonable 3D program. The whole model was probably an hour to build.” Again, experience (in the form of esoteric vocabulary) is called upon to defend this person’s view.

In this way, duration claims its territory in a place renowned for its ephemerality. Any amount of time online is measurable by the passing of memes. I could, perhaps, refer to the time when “All Your Base…” swept through the internet and a specific time would come to mind. Yet this sense of time has little relation to time spent in the real world. Bringing up experience when faced with the possibility of a hoax is a way of asserting a relationship with the non-internet world – where the claims of reality or unreality actually matter.

These possible hoaxes inspire such frantic argument largely because every attempt to weigh in on them is both read and rhetorically framed as a reflection of the commenter’s grasp of reality. The distinction between those who “get it” and those who do not is exaggerated on the internet like few other places. This constitutes, perhaps, a blatantly hierarchical element – an order under which all users are graded on their knowledge of internet culture and technology – in an otherwise anarchic system.

To argue against the reality of a photo like this is thus to argue against wide-eyed “noobs” who are used to applying everyday epistemology to the internet; but conversely, those who argue for its reality are accusing their detractors of not having recovered from the epistemological impact of the internet. The flame war is displaced, but only temporarily – maybe everything on the internet comes back to identity.

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