I’ll have more to say about Tom Nichols’s excellent new book The Death of Expertise in the days ahead, but for now I want to underline one important observation he makes.
Namely: “The Internet . . . is nothing like a library” (110).
In the recent conversation about who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere, I saw in at least one place that the blogosphere was likened to a great big library—a place where diverse viewpoints are housed, a place where people come to seek truth, a place where ideas are not censored and readers need discernment. Without wanting to deny these general points as they relate to Christians in the blogosphere, I believe it is a necessary part of discernment that we realize the internet (of which the Christian blogosphere is a part) is nothing like a library.
Yes, a library has many different volumes. And yes, we can go there to search for answers and acquire knowledge. But a library is a highly curated collection of knowledge. We have a Michigan State University librarian in our church. She has a master’s degree in library science. She oversees a section of materials related to European history. She is constantly reading through journals and periodicals to find the most important new books to purchase. She also gets rid of old stuff that has proven to be relatively worthless. She is also a wealth of information when people have questions about where to find the best, most important stuff. She doesn’t have an ideological grid when it comes to what goes in the library, but she does have an expertise grid. Almost all the books that get into a library like MSU’s are by people with credentials, with academic positions, or with institutional legitimacy.
I’m not suggesting the internet should be like a well-staffed research library (it never could be like that). But the analogy with a library makes it sound like this wild proliferation of online opinions and ideas is just what we’ve always had. It’s not. The internet is only like a library if anyone can come to your library and put their term papers wherever they want, scatter their files on the floor, and line the walls with pornography.
This doesn’t mean the blogosphere should be limited to those with degrees and tenure-track appointments. Anyone with access to the internet can put their ideas out for the world to see (or ignore). The genie is not going back in the bottle. The point of this post is not to try to tame the internet (who could be trusted with that power?). The point is that we must expect the internet to be wilder than a library. I’d say the internet is like the buffet at Golden Corral—something for everyone, much of it unhealthy, but plenty of good stuff if you know where to look—except that a restaurant must meet all sorts of health and safety standards. I can’t bring my gluten free cookies and plop them down on the dessert tray.
At best, the internet is like a wild forest. No one controls it. No one manicures it. It just grows and grows. And in the forest you’ll find plenty of beauty. But be careful, eat the wrong mushrooms and you could die.
At worst, the internet is like a wide open garbage dump. Every day people dump more and more onto the pile. Sure you may be able to find something valuable, but you’ll have to wade through a lot of trash first.
So, by all means, enjoy a meal from time to time at the internet buffet. Explore the overgrown trees and breathtaking vistas. Bend over and pick up that love poem surrounded by rotten banana peals. The Christian blogosphere has plenty that is good and true and beautiful, and plenty that is nasty, brutish, and rarely short. Expect to find truth. Expect to find error. Just don’t expect it to be a library.