Wednesday, June 29, 2005

My Internet Adventure

I honestly believe that the Wikipedia is one of the treasures of the Internet, but it's not a completely dependable source of information. Most of us know this in theory, but I think it's easier to simply cede ultimate authority to some written or broadcasted source. Legend has it that the Guinness Book of World Records was created to settle bar bets. You met, you insisted something was true, someone pulled out a copy of the book and you just assumed that the world's fattest man, etc. is the guy identified in its pages. Hardly anyone ever asks what the Guinness Book people did to make sure they were right. They don't go from town to town across the world with a truck scale. They don't send out surveys to millions of people, "Who's the biggest person you ever met?"
Brilliant, Brilliant....

About a week ago, I started writing for the blog about the similarities between the Phillipine Insurrection of 1898 and our current occupation of Iraq. I learned two interesting things. First, because the war happened while Mckinley was president, I assumed that Mark Hanna, his pro-business political strategist who was the beta version of Karl Rove, had helped to orchestrate the war. Further research indicated that Hanna actually opposed the war. Rove studied and admired Hanna. It simply made sense that Rove's use of Iraq must have been pulled from his study of Hanna. It just didn't happen to be true. In that war, Theodore Roosevelt was the hawk and Hanna the "Isolationist." It was this Blogkeeper's first reminder that you shouldn't believe every "fact" repeated in a blog, even my own. Many of us really are just some guy who looks things up on the net and possibly double checks it in a book. In this case, it appeared to fit so well, I simply made an unwarranted assumption before I took the time to hunt down a more detailed version of Hanna's career.

When I looked Hanna up on the Wikipedia, an internet "open source" encyclopedia, I was very surprised to learn that Hanna had served in the Civil War and according to the Wikipedia, last week, had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1895 for his service during that war. "Wow," I thought, "This guy was no chickenhawk neo-con."

I looked up a handful of other Hanna biographies on the net. About four of them contained the same bit about the Congressional Medal of Honor. Each looked suspiciously like the Wikipedia article. One problem with HTML is clearly that it's much to easy to cut and paste. Two things bothered me though. First, the original Wikipedia said that his service in the Civil War was very "brief". Second, I wondered why would a prominent Republican political advisor be given the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1895, thirty years after the war and with a Democrat in the White House. If he won the thing, why didn't any of these sources say what he did to win the highest military honor an American can receive?

I did a little more searching on the net to see if I could find a list of Medal of Honor winners. Via Yahoo search, I turned up
a story about a lighthouse keeper in Maine, named Mark Hanna who also won the Medal of Honor in 1895 for his service in the Civil War. There were at least two Marcus Hannas who served in the Civil War. The other was a quartermaster from Ohio who went on to advise a future president.

I sent a note to Wikipedia and much to my surprise they changed their entry to reflect the information that I'd found elsewhere on the Internet, which I suppose makes me an actual "Wiki". That's the good news.

At the same time, I am thinking about the ways the Net is playing an increasingly prominent role in everyday life as a de facto source of authoritative information, a Guiness Book of World Records on electronic steroids. In the last presidential election, both candidate's military records became a swift
source of controvery. Many complained that mass media was somewhat AWOL with respect to getting out accurate information about either. There are some fascinating sources of information on the Internet. You can get copies of speeches, the text of every bill a major politician has ever endorsed, voted on, written, etc. Still, the sad truth is that the Internet probably served as much as a source of disinformation about both stories as it did to confirm any facts. Making matters worse, military records happen to be one of the best kept types of documentation, apparently because they need to get pension information right. 102 years after he died, the Internet promoted Mark Hanna from a quartermaster who went into business into a Medal of Honor Winner. At least five other sites simply copied and repeated the information. How much of that goes on with contemporary political blogs? How much happened in Swift Boat vs. National Guard?

The Greeks looked to the Delphic Oracle. A significant portion of the modern world believes that either the Bible or the Koran contain answers to all significant questions. Unwittingly, we have begun to trust a secular oracle, the World Wide Web in combination with the Google Search Engine. We know very little about how information gets to either one, yet it's becoming a kind of collective consciousness/unconscious.

As we grow more dependent on this ever changing Gaia like promise, we should be thinking about the dangers. Consider the possibility of "information" terrorism. How hard would it be to manipulate common sources on the Internet? WMD could appear in Iraq. The Holocaust could disappear. The President's national guard records could change. A political strategist could be given the Medal of Honor. It might be as easy as getting a hundred different bloggers to repeat something enough times and it then appears at the top of a Google Search. If the Net is going to be our collective folk memory, shouldn't we be thinking about ways to maintain its integrity?

Should we be teaching kids to be "critical" net users rather than just consumers?
Something like the Wikipedia takes pains to continually augment and edit what it posts, a kind of truth by recursion approach. In the meantime, I honestly believe that various individuals have found more techniques to distort rather than uncover the truth as it appears on the Internet, while most internet users become less and less critical of what they find there.

So, let this be your warning. Be careful about any assertions of fact that appear in mine or any other blog.

Chancelucky: The Phillipines (1898) Iraq (2003)



At 7/01/2005 01:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A thousand years ago when I put in a spate of teaching 7th & 8th graders some American History, I found that the history text books put in about one short paragraph about Hiroshima and Nakasaki. There was never even an approximate count of the civilian dead. And when I tried to find a count there was zilch in a major American encyclopedia, but I could find it in the Britanica.

It was not until this very year when I saw a documentary about Robert McNamara(the Fog of War) that I even heard anything about the many firebombed wooden cities in Japan with 10s of thousands of civilian casualties. I'd heard of Dresden in Germany, but never all the firebombed wooden cities in Japan, the roasting of civilians being the only rationale. (Even now I cannot find the full info on the Web tho it was in the documentary.) And as you suggest, almost all the not-Wiki sites have just copied and pasted the Wiki info, sketchy as it is.

We accuse other countries of cleansing or skewing history. The high school text books were sanitized, bleached.

Another related difficulty with the web that I didn't find out right away is that if you really like dead poets like I do, you float in a blissful sea of luxurious and complete info. I thought that this was the way it was. Until I went to find my darling Borges. Well, hardly anything -- because of the copyright issues presumably. We need to figure out someway to subsidize the artists & heirs for this access. (Good first step would be to stop the fantasy Missile Defense sytem which is costing us 14,000$ a minute every minute and apply that to art, our true defense.)

At 7/01/2005 10:25:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I've been following your google saga on your excellent site.

I'm sure that some of the ways the internet distorts or misses facts while appearing complete aren't unique to the world wide web. It's been going on for a long time with all published material.

One difference with "wiki" is that it can be self-correcting. But that also means that it can be self-distorting. Now there's a premise for a Borges story.

At 7/01/2005 06:23:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

by the way, really interesting article on possibel Google censorship..

At 1/08/2006 10:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just read your thoughts about parallels between the Spanish-American War/Phillipine 'Insurrection' and the situation in Iraq. In these you mention that the S-A War/P Insr lasted three years, which agrees with the most popular renderings for answering a "Mr. History" quiz.

You may find it interesting to consider that while the shooting S-A War truly did last only a few months from 1898 into 1899, the last major engagement of the P Insr took place not in 1902, but in 1913 on the Phillipine island of Jolo, which is located about halfway between the westernmost point of Mindanao (the city of Zamboanga) and the northern end of the island of Borneo. This last major engagement took place around an area called Bud Bagsak, a group of hilly fortifications, occupied by Moros and elements of combined US Army and Phillipino forces commanded by General John Pershing, who several years later led the AEF in WWI.

Even after Bud Bagsak, there were sporadic echos (if you will) of insurrection up to the beginning of WWII, and indeed, the occasional echo still occurs to the present day. Witness the kidnappings and such reported from time to time.

Perhaps the reasonable expectation for Iraq should be a government that will participate in and contribute positively to individual human rights and world affairs, rather than a perfect rendering of an unattainable ideal after some impossible clear-cut winning encounter. In essence, it's just another country that we can deal with. (Bad grammar there!)

I wrote as much to our local newspaper, without response, which thus begs a resemblance in some small ways to the contributions and impact of Hearst's papers in 1898 and after.

Wiki is 'nice.' Just 'nice.'

Recently some more scholarly, but very readable works have appeared. For your interest, you might consider "The Phillipine War, 1899-1902," by Brian McAllister Linn, the Univ. of Kansas Press, 2000 and "America at War, the Phillipines, 1898-1913," by A. B. Feuer, Praeger Publishers, 2002.

The lesson of the middle east might be that it is within human nature to never forget and never forgive, and perhaps to never learn tolerance. The Phillipine Insurrection lead to an improvement in tolerance. With the right effort, time, and personalities, Iraq is simply another opportunity to spread some more tolerance around just a little more. Good luck to all those personally involved.

At 3/01/2006 03:41:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Many thanks anonymous, for the references and the very thoughtful reply and elaboration.

btw. I wasn't the one saying that the insurrection ended in 3 years, I was pointing to the Kondracke article and actually thought some of his reasoning was pretty dubious.


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