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Carr's latest fiction: "Information Poisoning"

By MrMikey in Culture
Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 10:10:55 AM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)

Caleb Carr wrote a piece for Salon entitled "Information Poisoning". In it, he attempts to build a case for the need for government censorship of the internet. Caleb Carr's latest work of fiction, "Killing Time" is a dystopia in which (I'm not kidding) an unregulated Internet destroys the world.

Do I take him seriously? No, though his article is not totally without merit. The question is, how prevalent are his ideas, his viewpoint? Is this what the public thinks of the Net? What about his (few) valid concerns with respect to corporate influence, the desire for short-term gratification vs. the need for thoughtful consideration of the philosophical and moral underpinnings of our society, and the distinction between information and knowledge?

He also got a short interview in Wired, which included the following exchange:

Wired: Isn't TV as easy to fake as the Net?

Carr: At least TV tries to check stuff out. Look, the Internet is basically a tool for buying things and for pornography. When it becomes more than that, it will become extremely dangerous.

Here is (paraphrased, since I didn't save a copy) the letter I submitted to Salon:

I just read Caleb Carr's latest work of fiction: "Information Poisoning." In it, he deftly captures the mindset of an ignorant, fearful neo-Luddite. He includes classic elements such as references to "child molesters" and "pornography" while also adding amusing topical references such as "I'm saying there should be an agency in place that would terrify Matt Drudge." He broadens what would otherwise be a trite one-dimensional portrayal by referring to real problems (the distinction between information and knowledge, corporate influences, etc.). He also added what I believe to be an homage to "1984" by his character's oblique reference to a "Ministry of Information." I recommend this short story, but only for it's value as light, psuedo-scary bedtime reading. I look forward to his next piece of fiction."

I vented my spleen. All well and good, but that wouldn't be reason to submit a story to K5. The more interesting questions are: Who would read something like this and agree with it? Does this accurately reflect how the public sees the Internet? And what about his (few) valid points?

It seems to me that Caleb Carr is basically afraid that misinformation will be take as gospel by those who traverse the Net, and that this will damage our society. He sees corporate or governmental censorship as the only alternatives, and chooses the government as the lesser evil. This references to kiddie porn and pornography in general condemn him to the kook file, and this lovely morsel

It therefore requires unprecedented attempts to assure the veracity of the content it purveys and to protect those who use it. And if that means suspending full First Amendment protection from the Internet, so be it.
buries him there so deep you'd need a bathysphere to find him, but he does have a few points.

First, we have the question of public perceptions of "The Net" (not to be confused with that Sandra Bullock confection that blew through the theatres a while back). For most people (IMHO), when they think of the net they think of email, the Web, and AOL chat rooms (if they're connected) or pr0n, email, the Web, and AOL chat rooms if not. Few know the ins and outs, the history, etc. I could see many people falling for Carr's babblings, replete with trigger phrases like "kiddie porn" and "sex offender". He's afraid, and he wants you to be afraid too. So afraid, in fact, that you will be willing to let the First Amendment fall by the wayside "for the children." Am I overreacting? Maybe. This is just one guy pimping his novel with scary stories. He isn't the first. But, he is being published, he is being interviewed, and he is being read.

Ever hear of the Big Lie Theory? Today, I tell you "Joe Blow is a fink." You say "No way! Joe is a great guy. " I come back two weeks later and say "Joe Blow is a fink." You think, "Hmmm. Where have I heard that before?" Two weeks after that, I tell you "Joe Blow is a fink." You say "Well, yeah! Everyone knows that." Repetition, particularly from multiple sources, and occurring over time, builds credibility... especially if the ideas being repeated are frightening, and if said ideas are not considered too deeply. And, alas, wild claims play better than facts. On to his points...

First, he fears that information technology is making us somehow dumber, making it easy for us to assemble vast quantities of information without our being able to integrate that info into a cohesive body of knowledge. Perhaps, but censorship and regulation would do nothing to help that. Maybe we should be offering school courses in "Information Integration." ?

Next, he fears we are so bombarded with entertainment and marketing that we are rendered incapable of objective thought. Again, censorship won't fix that, and in case he hadn't noticed, the net is hardly the primary conduit by which such material reaches us. Funny, he doesn't say anything about censoring TV, newspapers, magazines, or, dare I mention them, books. Surprise, surprise.

How are children dealing with their access to the Net? How is that access changing the nature of childhood and children's educations and experiences? Excellent questions. Too bad he drops them in favor of

I thought long and hard about ways to make information technology more socially beneficial. But in the end, I could not escape one central dilemma: Only two forms of regulation are available in the United States: governmental and corporate.
Thought long and hard, did he? He suggests applying fraud, false advertising, and libel statutes (don't they apply now? Any lawyers in the house?) to the net, and putting regulatory bodies in place to ensure that. He acknowleges the power of the net, but thinks that "Regulation is desperately needed to prevent widespread, even general, mental and intellectual poisoning of the public. " No doubt he would be happy to be chairman of the Ministry of Information... I mean, regulatory body that dispenses the permission to publish to those worthy of it.

Here is where he is (tangentially) on to something. Not regulation, but watchdog organizations that give a "Seal of Approval" to information sources. These could be just a bunch of people getting together and rating info sites for their veracity (sound familiar?), or, say, voluntary work by journalists, or scientists, or others knowledgeable in their respective fields. We sort of have that now, with multiple sites pointing out each other's mistakes.

Back to Carr. He states that "... I think the key is verification and attribution enforcement," but goes on to say that he isn't sure how this will turn information into knowledge, and that it's still up to the individual. So, how does regulation help again? Not to mention that teeny, tiny element he's missing: who decides what is true and what is not? Is an opinion "true"? What does that even mean in this context? This is not to say that there is no such thing as truth (as some black-beret-wearing pomo academics would have you believe), but that putting a single regulatory body in charge of a) determining the accuracy of everything stated on the net (some job, eh?), and b) given the authority to enforce it's judgements, is, well, loony. Perhaps he should stick to writing fiction, where he can wave his authorial hand and make such troublesome questions go away.

So, what do you all think?


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


I believe the Net should be...
o a totally unregulated medium. 58%
o policed to keep out the kiddie porn, but that's it. 8%
o Controlled by a bald guy with a white cat and a monocle. 21%
o safe for my three-year-old. 1%
o ground under the iron heel of Inoshiro. 8%

Votes: 56
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Salon
o "Informati on Poisoning"
o short interview
o Also by MrMikey

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Carr's latest fiction: "Information Poisoning" | 11 comments (11 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Regulation (3.50 / 2) (#1)
by Cyberrunner on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 04:31:53 AM EST

You quote his work, "I thought long and hard about ways to make information technology more socially beneficial. But in the end, I could not escape one central dilemma: Only two forms of regulation are available in the United States: governmental and corporate." That's scary alright, one will make you a complacent tax payer and the other one wants you to be a willing consumer. I'd guess he wants everyone to read his books, and ignore the web, grin. Then again, I'll wenture to say the entire web would be considered "entertainment" unless the government approves it otherwise, please file for your entertainment license, now... Don't forget the music industry, if you use sound... movie industry, if you quote, etc....

The reference to the "Ministry of Information," will no doubt remind people of Brazil, the movie. A memorable movie; "We're all in this together."

wow. caleb carr trolled salon. impressive. (3.75 / 4) (#2)
by sayke on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 08:23:43 AM EST

i suppose it was really just a matter of time... hm. loud conterversial rantings, made from a position of (assumed) authority, garner attention, and attention sells ads, so conterversial rantings will get press every so often... there will always be a market niche for mindless sensationalism like the drivel from mr. carr. i don't really mind; better that then the opposite extreme (which mr. carr advocates). i just wonder how long it will be before we have someone loudly decrying the evils of water...

ok, time for a tanget: i wonder how much a good reputation can be sold for... i wonder how much money (say) stephen hawking could make by recanting, openly advocating astrology based on a few specious arguments, and setting up and running an expensive astrological consulting company. heh. credibility is a commodity, indeed...

sayke, v2.3.1 /* i am the middle finger of the invisible hand */

someone loudly decrying the evils of water... (none / 0) (#5)
by error 404 on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 11:24:53 AM EST

Coalition to Ban DHMO
Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase
- Donovan

[ Parent ]
Trolling the mainstream media (none / 0) (#7)
by Numenius on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 10:35:33 PM EST

Heh. I don't think Mr. Carr is being that subtle though. It is an amusing thought however -- an author getting a piece of veiled satire past the editors (all-too-literal-minded these days) of a widely-read publication and into press. I wonder how often it happens?

Why does Mr. Carr neglect education as a remedy for the woes he describes? Somehow it seems more productive to teach people critical thinking skills than to regulate everything in sight.

[ Parent ]

recommending education is not alarmist enough =) (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by sayke on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 10:56:28 AM EST

and it is my hypothesis that mr. carr is deliberatly propigating crass alarmism and desperate beg-the-man-to-save-you-from-yourself-ishness, for reasons known only to him... although i'm sure you can guess as well as i can ;p... actually, thanks to you, my little never-attribute-to-malice alarm is going off. shrug. as there is no efficient way of testing my hypothesis, i must regretfully relagate it to the back burner...

sayke, v2.3.1 /* i am the middle finger of the invisible hand */
[ Parent ]

We're cured, all right (4.00 / 3) (#3)
by Beorn on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 08:27:17 AM EST

Sounds to me like despite using pleasant euphemisms and claiming a social consciousness, he's a follower of the theory that left to their own, without moral and intellectual guidance, humans will mindlessly descend into decadence and stupidity. This belief is usually caused by watching too much Jerry Springer, but it's interesting, possibly correct, and on the whole irrelevant.

If that really is the direction humanity is moving, then I trust our descendants will not repeat the mistake of allowing a free internet. But to give up now, to not even try, that is pure cowardice. Come back in a 1000 years, and I'll consider the idea. Besides, he's dead wrong about the reliability of the internet, but I don't think he's worth repeating myself - I have no idea why Salon printed this piece, (except perhaps trolling for eyeballs).

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]

There's a really good irony here (3.50 / 4) (#4)
by RangerBob on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 09:39:20 AM EST

He's worried about misinformation and the like. It's ironic that he's spewing misinformation in a medium that he considers to be "safeer". We all know the tv and magazines ALWAYS check everything before it's published don't we. The only problem is that there will always be people like Carr, and the best thing we could do is to ignore them and let them fade away.

If you believe the statistics on how much business about how well the porn industry is doing online, it would appear that a lot of people disagree with him about it being a problem.

I'm not sure how prevalent his views are in the public. I know I've only run into one person so far who thought that the Internet was only a place to sell kiddie porn. Of course, said person also believed that they were so important to the Universe that the government was constantly spying on them. I'd tend to think that as more people get online and see what's there that this alarmistic viewpoint would start to decrease. I know that when my mother finally got a computer, she went from thinking it was bad to being in total amazement about how cool it was.

TV Is More Credible? Puh-leeze! (5.00 / 2) (#6)
by Steve B on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 01:24:00 PM EST

At least TV tries to check stuff out.

For Ghu's sake, don't do that to me when I have a mouthful of coffee! (Fortunately, my cat doesn't do laps.)

Perhaps a few hours of watching shows like Sightings, Investigating The Outer Realms, and of course the classic Alien Autopsy Film would cure this delusion; however, one suspects that Carr's resistance to evidence against his positions would require the full Clockwork Orange forced-showing routine.

Rebuttal at Salon (4.00 / 1) (#8)
by wiredog on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 09:55:24 AM EST

A rebuttal by Scott Rosenburg at Salon

The idea of a global village is wrong, it's more like a gazillion pub bars.

TV (none / 0) (#10)
by your_desired_username on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 11:07:20 AM EST

Misinformation is already taken as gospel by many who watch TV. Fortunately, some people know better - or hope they do.

oh, come on now :) (none / 0) (#11)
by Maniac_Dervish on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 07:26:17 PM EST

some of the central ideas posited by this wacko are actually quite good. his approach and the culture of fear and desperation it tries to induce are the problem.

what we so often miss is that anonymity, while valuable, has flaws too. when you start to consider, for example, meeting someone you know from the net (say a party hosted by www.memepool.com- there actually was one of these a while back) you want to know exactly who that person really is.

while i like the concept of anonymity, and i like being able to surf around on the web in relative obscurity without worrying that my privacy is being violated too much (i know the upstream isp people pretty well... they could sniff me, but i'd sniff right back), i still have some concerns about identities and things of that nature.

if i buy something from amazon.com, i want them to know that its really ME placing the order. as it stands, i know the cookies are on my parents computer and could be used to order books from their house too- AS ME.

we really need a widely-implemented method of distributing and checking secure ID's. pgp keys seem to be pretty good, but aren't implemented by nearly enough software to make them spread.

i think a framework allowing multiple levels of trust and verification might be the bomb... it'd really make some things work well. for instance, i might like to certify that "i've met this user in person, know his family and his dog's name, and i'm 100% sure that he exists and is trustworthy". that's not enough to say that you should accept his keysigns as valid, but its enough that you can evaluate the difference, if you know ME, between a rogue group of people cross-signing keys and a set of real users.

is this making sense? anonymity isn't really the answer, responsibility and trust metrics (see advogato) are.

~Maniac_Dervish (feel free to email responses to elw@stderr.org as well as posting them here)

Carr's latest fiction: "Information Poisoning" | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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