Column Entry, “Gatekeeping in the Gales Ahead,” by Mark Williams

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Column Title: Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance

Column Entry: “Gatekeeping in the Gales Ahead”

By Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento


May 2024 / November 2022 / October 2022 / March 2022 / February 2022 / November 2021 / October 2021 / September 2021 / August 2021 / June-July 2021 / April-May 2021


Gatekeeping in the Gales Ahead

In the days before there was an internet, I was an enlisted soldier guarding the Fulda Gap in West Germany so the Communist Menace would remain contained east of the Vogelsberg Mountains and not come pouring, Visigothlike, into the bastions of humane and civilized democracy found in western Europe.

There was a joke going around in those days that, as an enlisted man, I found delightful.  It went like this:

            Question: How do you tell the difference between an Enlisted Fox and an Officer Fox?

            Answer: The Officer Fox is the one who chews three legs off and is still caught in the trap.

The idea, of course, is that, in the end, there is no real substitute for the sort of practical wisdom that knows when to stop following the directions in the playbook and instead work out something workable.

Which brings us back to the internet, and especially the growing world of artificial intelligence. A little common-sense perspective might help us all.

The idea that we are going to solve this AI problem (and figuring out what “this AI problem” actually is, is part of our problem!) needs some careful context.

This is not the first time we have stumbled into a world where most of our playbooks have left us with three legs chewed off and still in the trap.  The Internet and especially its unfortunate affair with AI has produced the love child named Diffidentia.  Diffidentia is the Latin word for suspicion or mistrust.  An absence of confidence and a flourishing confusion marks every byte of our mediated life now, and so folks fall back, repeated and adamantly, on absolutely the only thing they can be absolutely sure of, which is their own uninformed feelings about stuff.  Because, of course, the one thing you can always be absolutely sure about is how you feel right now.  Unfortunately, this moment where nobody has anything to talk about except their own most recent feelings exactly matches that moment where everybody has the technology to share their own most recent feelings with abysmal efficiency devoid of effort, craft, or even self-awareness.

But the truth is this: we’ve been here before—or very nearly.  For twenty years I’ve been telling my students that the internet will do to us what the printing press did to Europe in its day.  I still believe that; I am watching it happen in real time.

Prior to the printing press, books were ludicrously expensive because they were so very labor intense.  Every single one was written by hand, sewn by hand, pasted by hand, shaped by hand, and covered by hand.  Every book went through this process.  Every book was a labor of love and many were absolute masterpieces of craft.

But all this meant that, usually, you simply didn’t put anything into a book unless that content had a long and proven history of providing valuable insights or helping people make good decisions.  Ideas earned the right to be in a book.  And ideas in books were worth knowing.  Until they weren’t.

Because suddenly cheap paper and mass-produced books were a real thing.  Minds that couldn’t be trusted and had no proven record of guiding good decisions were filling books. You could write the most drivel-filled nonsense and put it in a book and have a hundred copies of your book out in the city faster than you could say Big Lie.  And people would believe it. At least a good chunk of it.  Because it was in a book.  And whether they said it or not, everybody just felt in their bones that books were good guides. You could trust them. And so books turned into bad guides that you couldn’t trust.

In the aftermath of the printing press, the credibility of books crumbled.  Of course, we fixed that.  But note well: it took a couple of centuries.  Eventually certain places had risen up and established a new stamp of authority and trust. Printing houses were born.  And you came to know that, if it was printed at Oxford University, you could trust it. But if you were picking up something printed at Knights Penny down on Farthing Street, well, not so much.

The printing press destroyed the gate-keepers of meaning—learnéd monks in scriptoria—and for a while there were no gate-keepers.  And it was horrible.

In democracy, who keeps the gates of meaning?  Should there be any gate-keepers?

Batten down the hatches.  The answers to those questions are on the other side of a looming storm. And we’ll need more than one good conversation about how to keep our bearings in that gale.

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