This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily on March 22, 2018.
“There is an underappreciated paradox of knowledge that plays a pivotal role in our advanced hyper-connected liberal democracies: the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it,” begins an interesting article in the online Aeon magazine by Gloria Origgi, Italian philosopher and author of 2017’s Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters.
“What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous,” Origgi writes. “Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.”
Some think information is worth serious consideration if it’s from a particular, trusted source, for example. This information doesn’t require much verification. Others may rely on website reviews and rankings. Some of the most highly trafficked sites like Amazon, Yelp, and Netflix specialize in serving up customized recommendations and well-reviewed products and experiences. These ever-adjusting algorithms prevent time from wasted just sifting through a lot of information and struggling to make choices.
“We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge,” Origgi continues in the Aeon piece.
From the ‘information age’, we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know.
If searching for truth, how can we parse more technologically available information than can even reasonably—or efficiently—be taken in? By relying on dependable reputational devices that filter information.
“What a mature citizen of the digital age should be competent at is not spotting and confirming the veracity of the news,” according to Origgi. “Rather, she should be competent at reconstructing the reputational path of the piece of information in question, evaluating the intentions of those who circulated it, and figuring out the agendas of those authorities that leant it credibility.”
How, exactly? She suggests that when we evaluate new information, we should ask ourselves:
Such questions, she notes, will help us “get a better grip of reality than trying to check directly the reliability of the information at issue.”
To Origgi’s list, there’s another potentially relevant question to ask about the information: who paid for it?
And for funders, how should they go about financially supporting those who generate and distribute information? There are at least two factors to think about.
This can be made much more difficult when the group’s very funding detracts from its credibility on the part of so many. This potential reputational detriment has always existed, but if Origgi is right, the monumental success of technologically increased access to information has raised the stakes of the detriment, too—of failing to create or maintain a giving reputation good enough to garner a read or a view, or persuade people to change their outlook.
The reader or viewer, of course, is the one entitled to consider and weigh funder reputation when reading or viewing the information. If a corporate funding source is inherently biased, for example, the reader can fully discount the information; if it’s only somewhat or maybe biased, then he or she can partially discount it. Similarly, if university funding is inherently biased, he or she can fully or partially discount it. Much of that done by the Capital Research Center, where I work, can be helpful here—shedding light on givers, the information they fund, and the credibility of both.
An information funder is the one responsible for weighing the risk of badly managing or damaging his, her, or its own reputation, and of knowing and properly evaluating the consequences.
Consciously or not, in the current politically and culturally tribal context, more and more philanthropic funders of information—whether liberal, conservative, or centrist—seem to be both creating and bearing high reputational risk. They are also tacitly transferring it to—if not imposing it on—their grant recipients.
In Origgi’s “reputation age,” givers to public discourse ought to be more cognizant of the value of their reputation. They should constantly ask questions about how to vigilantly preserve and enhance their reputation and think specifically about what their giving can do to it.
One safe general answer, a conservative one, would be to not put it at risk—or, if necessary, to risk it intelligently.