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The Gorman Shall Rise Again

This is brief, because I didn’t learn about this until I had written over 2,000 words on nonprofit IT management for an article that I need to wrap up. But how can I resist?

Having alienated most of his core audience, Michael Gorman has published a two part vent on Brittannica.com that demonstrates how ably he functions as a still point in a turning world. His hair is still blue (I didn’t know he actually liked that picture), he’s still using lots of long words to make small points, and he still hasn’t grokked the Web.

Jason Griffey, over on Pattern Recognition, does a nice job explaining the weaknesses in Gorman’s argument, and I expect more to come from various sections of the biblioblogosphere and beyond.

But I must point out that in the weird way that political extremes resemble one another, I agree with Gorman on some issues. I’m not convinced that the hive mind is always wise (the same mind that elected Bush at least once); I don’t fetishize Wikipedia, and am skeptical of the more woo-woo claims on its behalf; I appreciate the role of individual expertise. Nor do I think every text benefits from audience participation.

But as soon as I start to warm to Gorman’s argument, he turns his cannons toward “Web. 2.0″ — and immediately demonstrates he is fighting the wrong battle.

To start with:

  • “Bloggers are called ‘citizen journalists'”: Some bloggers are citizen journalists — as Griffey points out, so was Thomas Paine — but that statement is a simple rhetorical error (or dodge)
  • “Alternatives to Western medicine are increasingly popular”: Many reputable doctors encourage the use of alternative medicine; if cranberry juice can fix a bladder infection, do we really need to ask Big Pharm to pollute a river to do the same thing?
  • “Millions of Americans are believers in Biblical inerrancy — the belief that every word in the Bible is both true and the literal word of God”: This is true, but irrelevant; Christian fundamentalism predates the Internet by, hmmm, close to 2,000 years
  • “[S]cientific truths on such matters as medical research, accepted by all mainstream scientists, are rejected by substantial numbers of citizens and many in politics”: This may be the most inscrutable statement he’s ever made. It conjured up the presidential administration’s resistance to scientific thinking about climate change. But did Bush and Cheney really pick up their ideologies from instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter? “Say, Dickie, what caused global warming?” “IDK… my BFF Jill?”

Gorman’s real motive becomes clear when he makes reference to a Goya etching, El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstruos, which he — to cut to the chase — looked up in a book. (Books are always and forever accurate, right?)

I know about this etching partly because I read about it decades ago and partly because I recently went to authoritative printed sources for confirmation of what I had read and for additional information and insights. These reference works were not only created by scholars and published by reputable publishers but also contained the paratextual elements (subject headings, indexes, bibliographies, content lists, etc.) also created by professionals that enabled me to find the recorded knowledge and information I wanted in seconds.

O.k., so enlighten me. What harm would be caused if I read this information on the Web, and not in a book? For that matter, what if I didn’t have to worry about “paratextual elements” and just found what I needed through a search engine, with a few contextual clues to reassure me this was a reasonably sound reference and not the work of some 12-year-old (or an outdated art book with old references…)? And what does any of this have to do with Web 2.0 (which in Gorman’s head seems to be the name emblazoned on the side of the firetrucks in Fahrenheit 451, ready to come burn down his bookcases)?

What’s most disappointing is that these “blog” posts (to the extent anything published by Britannica can be said to be blogged) should have been written by Gorman, and not by Jaron Lanier, on whose ideas Gorman extensively, but ineffectively, piggybacks. Lanier is a worthy hawker in this marketplace of ideas. Was his hair not blue enough? His language not fusty enough? (I leave the third question unstated, but while we’re on that general subject, note that fewer than 10 of the Britannica’s “blog” authors are female.)

This contretemps would be funny if it weren’t so annoying. There are important things to be discussed about authority and order and metadata and quality and such, but elevating Gorman to the level of expert pundit on anything related to the Web suggests that Britannica isn’t seeking the intelligent exchange of ideas, but is looking to build its Technorati rankings through the now-tiresome back-and-forth of Gorman-says-X, now-we-disprove-it; I am sure Britannica is now busy finding people to “respond” to their manufactured controversy, like one of those episodes on afternoon TV shows I see at the gym where after the wife tells all, the dazed cuckold is brought onto stage to stammer his chagrine. Yes, I too have now contributed to that weary business, and I wish it were not so necessary to have done so.

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