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Read: Economical with the truthiness

For the complete article by Ben Macintyre go here.

In our Wiki-world, first-hand knowledge seems unnecessary and the story more important

Mrs Mortimer’s odyssey was truly remarkable - between 1849 and 1854, she published three volumes of travel writing, covering Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, each larded with her own special brand of disdain. The Portuguese “the clumsiest people in Europe”; the Welsh “not very clean”; the Zulus “a miserable race”.

Favell Lee Mortimer held her Victorian readers spellbound with her colourful descriptions of foreign lands and their benighted inhabitants. But what made Mrs Mortimer’s attitude to foreign countries even more extraordinary was that she had never been to any of them. Mrs Mortimer wrote her entire travelogue from her drawing room in England. Apart from a childhood trip to Paris and Brussels, she never set foot outside this country and had no wish to - already convinced, as she was, that abroad was full of all those clumsy, unhygienic and unhappy foreigners.

Mrs Mortimer’s spiritual heir is the former Lonely Planet writer Thomas Kohnstamm, who cheerfully admitted this week that he had written a section of the Colombia guide without having visited the country. Bogus travel writing has a long and inglorious history, but in another way Kohnstamm is representative of a wider and more modern malaise: writers reviewing books they have not read, politicians claiming to have braved dangers they never faced, novelists depicting places they have not seen, memoirists describing a past that never happened, journalists making up stories about people that never existed, and, most pernicious of all, writers simply cutting and pasting words they have not written.

In most cases this is not active deception, but rather a strange cultural blurring of truth and fiction, the confusion of first-hand knowledge with second-hand electronic cuttings, the elision of personal experience with a reality borrowed or imagined from elsewhere.

This is the victory of information over experience. In Wiki-world, where so much semi-reliable information is available at the push of a button, there is no need to see something first-hand in order to be able to describe it with conviction and authority. A comparison of Paris guidebooks reveals entire chunks of identical text for some tourist spots: why actually visit somewhere to find out what it is like when one can merely paste together a version of reality?

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