Fact, fiction, and the morass that is the Internet

I don’t believe in divine intervention, but sometimes things happen that might fall into that category if I did.

For example, I wrote half of today’s blog post yesterday morning. It felt unfinished and I wasn’t quite sure what the point was. Then I went for a walk, during which I listened to the podcast of last week’s On the Media. My ears perked up when I heard the segment “The Changing Nature of Knowledge in the Internet Age,” in which author David Weinberger argues that the Internet has changed not only the means by which we assemble and assimilate knowledge, but the very definition of knowledge.

John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anat...As Weinberger pointed out, we are long past the days when a fact is a fact and when the taxonomy of knowledge is so certain that rather than accept something that didn’t fit within the existing framework of facts—the platypus—people doubted the creature’s very existence.

Books, once vital purveyors of facts, have the fundamental failing, in this internet age, that their links are broken—the footnotes don’t lead you anywhere. (Weinberger’s book is titled Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room; I am not sure of the status of its footnotes.)

Lest book writers flee screaming from their keyboards, listen to Weinberger’s next comment in the interview, “When you have a medium that is unrestricted in how much it can handle, as the Internet is, we are better able to investigate an idea without stopping points, we are able to get explanations at every level of expertise… the ecology of knowledge has filled out.”

In practical terms, this means that there is no longer a barrier to research. I can find out with a few mouse clicks what it might have been like to live in Ireland in the 1940s or be drafted during the Viet Nam era. Better yet, I can see pictures taken by vets or read a narrative by someone who emigrated from Ireland.

And now that I can, I must! As fellow CWC member and Internet research guru Geri Spieler said at CWC’s last meeting, factual errors can sink an otherwise commendable piece of fiction. It’s almost as if fiction writers (except those writing fantasy or otherwise constructing worlds entirely of their own imaginations) must become journalists.

All of this leaves me, after a night of reflection, nearly as befuddled as I was yesterday. But my befuddlement didn’t stop me from spending much of my “writing time” this morning reading about the history of the selective service in the U.S. and looking at one soldier’s photos and recollections. At the same time, I kept a sharp eye on the clock. I had to make sure I wouldn’t be wandering for eternity in that place where it’s possible to investigate an idea without stopping points.

If I disappear, you’ll know where to search for me… along with other writers who fear being sucked into the morass that is the Internet. Maybe you’re wandering there, too.

4 thoughts on “Fact, fiction, and the morass that is the Internet

  1. The internet is awesome, but I think it had to be a starting point and not an ending point.

    There is so much unsubstantiated stuff out there. It’s hard to decipher what has any basis in fact. I was researching Victorian fashion and found so many conflicting facts, my head ached from inconsistencies. I headed to the library and took out 6 books. At least, I can source my research if one of my readers disagrees.

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    • I know what you mean. For quick tidbits (dates, weather on a certain day, etc.) the Internet can be great. Also for personal stuff, like comments in discussion groups that are raw, uncensored info from (presumably!) real people. But I find myself heading to the library more often than not. In fact, for my novel-in-progress, I’m keeping a bibliography.

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  2. So true. And with so much available to us, it is important our fiction is as “accurate” as it can be. Of course, one must also develop a keen eye for recognizing the legit from the drivel 🙂

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