The editors at n+1 reflect on our relationship to facts and the empirical sublime. Just as this is an age of great wealth inequality, it is also an age of great inequality of knowledge or, more exactly, factual information. For all its democratic potential, the fact-filled internet has only heightened the pre-Google asymmetry between those, on one side, loyal to Baconian methods of patient, inductive gathering of facts — the ways of the card catalog and the archive, of the analysis and evaluation of empirical data — and those, on the other side, who didn’t need to read Foucault or the Frankfurt School to nurture a suspicion that positivist orders of knowledge mask a hierarchy of power in which they are meant to occupy the lowest rung.
It is the Republican Party’s deliberate disinformation strategy, more than any properties inherent in so-called information technologies, that has created these two parallel Americas. In one of them, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, climate change is a patent hoax, and the Laffer curve is the most basic truth of economics. As for the inhabitants of the other universe — “the reality-based community” of old-fashioned skeptics and empiricists, frequenters of public and university libraries, readers of the New York Times and of Elizabeth Kolbert in theNew Yorker, avid perusers of Harper’s Index and WikiLeaks — we possess ever vaster quantities of mostly accurate facts, and not much sense of what to do with them. Data data everywhere, and not a thought to think! Outside of a hedge fund or the CIA, there aren’t too many places where knowledge is power. Much of the time, intellectually and politically, knowledge is powerlessness.