Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In Lieu of an Update, a Nitpick

Some time way back was a post about some of the hitches we're experiencing as our cultural digitization accelerates. Since then we've seen the unwarranted social media manhunt of Ryan Lanza, beautiful but fake Hurricane Sandy photographs, the bursting of the "Romney will win in a landslide" filter bubble, and so on. But today we're revisiting a recipient of the original post's criticism: QUOTE SITES.

There's a whole bunch of them out there, but they're pretty much the same: websites amassing pithy sayings from famous people and inviting browsers to search and peruse their ad-dappled indexes. One such site is Philosophical Quotes, whose Twitter feed I've recently begun following.

A few days ago, @philo_quotes posted:

« Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another. »

Which is a beautiful quote -- but doesn't it sound sort of familiar

Plato technically did write that, sure. But in the Republic the line is spoken by Glaucon, and his suggestion that astronomy belongs in the philosopher's curriculum is immediately shot down by Socrates, Plato's mouthpiece within the dialogue. It's equivocal to present the statement as part of Plato's philosophy, since it was only proposed in order to be dismissed.

Yeah, sure. Nobody cares, nobody needs to care. But it's essentially erroneous information that most people following @philo_quotes (over 150,000 of them) will credulously accept. However much we might disagree with his assessment of astronomy's value, our man Plato was a stickler for the truth and would not appreciate being quoted out of context.

I emailed Philosophical Quotes to point this out. The site master thanked me for doing so, but the quote is still there. Well, whatever. Why should he give a shit?

To me this is another line (however small) underscoring the supreme necessity of the fact checker amidst our century's unprecedented gout of information. It also implies that a greater share of the burden of verification has been foisted upon the consumer's shoulders, whether he knows it or not. Want to be a more effective Internet user? Read more books.


  1. That quote is used a LOT. I didn't notice it until you discussed that segment of The Republic a few months ago, but since then I've encountered it at least five or six different times. At this point it's pretty obvious that the only source any of these websites get there quotes from is other websites.

    1. What a racket, right? Public domain profiteering.

  2. Same with approximately 80% of Oscar Wilde's quotes which come from the mouth of the delightfully cynic and hedonistic Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Grey.

    While some of those quotes clearly represent Wilde's own criticism on fastidious societal constructs and modern (as of the XIX century) lifestyle and morals, several others come from the character being a foil to the main character's personal growth and the true values that, by contrast, the author is actually talking about (and that are much more evident in his short stories like The happy Prince.)

  3. "The thing about quotes on the Internet is that you cannot confirm their validity."

    - Abraham Lincoln

    ...seemed fitting for this topic

    As for the need for fact checkers on the Internet, it's a lovely idea, but such a concept is at direct odds with the democratization of the Internet as it stands today.

    1. Which is one of the reasons I maintain a sort of incipient Luddism.

  4. Funny that you post this and then a week later the Manti Te'o thing breaks, showing us just how much weirder things can get in the digital age. That someone could fool (I guess the term is catfish) someone in an online relationship is old news as is the idea of lying (if he did) for personal gain. But the notion that for four months the entire news media bought a story without even doing a cursory check of the facts when Deadspin figured the story out in under a week is ridiculous. I know cuts are happening in the print media with regards to fact-checkers, but this seems beyond absurd to have gone on so long without someone's bullshit detector going off.