Who imagined epistemology would be cyclical?

I am eager to read Mark Pesce’s new essay , “The Last Days of Reality“.  Unfortunately it’s subscriber only at the moment. You can listen to his talk at one of the launch events. At first glance the notion of reality ending used to seem to be a stretch. Now we have “fake news” and Vox writing about epistemic crisis.

Technology has now gotten so advanced , it can obscure standards of truth, whether that’s changing the weather in a picture or the text of an audio.  What happens to truth when images and audio are no longer authoritative?  We actually have an idea of the answer to that question, thanks to the past.

James Burke described the opposite transformation in episode four of The Day the Universe Changed, “A Matter of Fact.” The episode begins with a description of epistemology prior to the printing press.  Burke argues that truth, in a mostly illiterate society, was grounded in relationships. Something was true because someone you trusted said it was.  Burke points out that this epistemology is preserved in things like oral personal testimony in court. He then goes on to explain how printing changed that.

Is it possible that “everything old is new again?” We see this in the way social media has changed news consumption.  More and more of the news we see comes from the things our friends bring to our attention.  Our news world comes from the people we trust.  Sound familiar?

There’s of course a huge difference in this model now and how it worked hundreds of years ago.  In the middle ages, most people communicated face to face.  You knew that your source was who they said they were because you looked them in the eye, with a few notable exceptions like Martin Guerre. Today, things aren’t that simple. Given the relative lack of encryption in person to person communications, there are few assurances that the email, tweet or facebook comment comes from the person who is its alleged author.  It’s possible that improvements in usable encryption will make it easier to verify identity online. If we are going to rely on relationships for our personal reality, this sort of verification is very important. Even if verification improves, what if , as Vox alleges is already happening, there are no shared authorities?