John Gable, of AllSides

Are we living in the Dark Ages of the Internet?

This week I published an interview with AllSides’ John Gable, who believes we’re living in the Dark Ages of the Internet. Please take a look.

He said that thanks to the disruptive forces of the web, our digital revolution is not unlike that brought about by the printing press…

“Not until society had learned how to use that new earth-shattering technology did things get better and the Reformation happened. I believe we’re in the Dark Ages of the Internet, when it comes to controversial topics.”

Read more of my interview with John

After more than 30 years in the tech business, working on Netscape Navigator, for Microsoft and AOL among others, he’s founded AllSides to tackle precisely this problem. Like The Echo Chamber Club, run by Alice Thwaites and Read Across The Aisle, founded by Nick Lum, it is tackling filter bubbles by exposing readers to a wider set of views.

John believes that by seeing all sides of the argument we will be in a far better position to weigh up what’s true and what’s not — and come to better conclusions. In this sense, AllSides is trying to address the break down in Americans’ trust of the news we read and watch online.

Gutenberg and trust

His view chimes with Thomas Pettitt’s theories on the Gutenberg Parenthesis and reported on by Neiman Lab’s Megan Garber a few years ago. This is the view that during the years dominated by the printing press, we were more likely to believe what we read in books and in printed media. Pettit argues there was a hierarchy to the trust we applied to media based on how it was published, with printed books considered most reliable, written material less so, and spoken word the least reliable of all.

“In the parenthesis, people like to categorise — and that includes the things they read. So the idea clearly was that in books, you have the truth. Because it was solid, it looked straight, it looked like someone very clever or someone very intelligent had made this thing, this artefact. Words, printed words — in nice, straight columns, in beautifully bound volumes — you could rely on them.”

But since the rise of digital media, facilitated by the Internet, that has been fundamentally undermined. Books are published quicker, other media looks like books, the categories are mashed together.

“We can no longer assume that what’s in — we’re not distinguishing so much: ‘if it’s in a book, it’s right,’ ‘if it’s in writing, it’s less right,’ and ‘if it’s in speech, it’s less reliable.’ We don’t know where we are.”

In Megan’s interview, Pettitt argues the news media has to find new ways to set itself apart from the crowd, of less reliable, less trustworthy media. You know, the stuff people have just started calling Fake News.

That helps us understand why Donald Trump thinks continually repeating the phrase, #fakenews, when talking about the New York Times, might actually work. He thinks he can exploit at least a portion of the American public’s increasing ambivalence to the once-trusted ‘paper of record’. Maybe, in this case at least, he’s right.

Please read my interview with John Gable and recommend it — and take a look at the other interviews in a series on filter bubbles and political polarisation on the web.