Stay Tuned/The Cult Of the Expert

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The Cult Of the Expert
29 July 2007

We're going to step outside advertising today and venture into the broader world of "media criticism," and meta-commentary about media criticism at that. Do not be alarmed. You will emerge unscathed, I promise.

Some weeks ago, my attention was drawn to a gent named Andrew Keen, due to the fact that he and his book (The Cult Of the Amateur) were being lambasted at Boing Boing. Since then, Keen has had a short sidebar in the August 3 issue of Entertainment Weekly - an issue devoted to all things Harry Potter. In this, he writes that the rudeness of the people who posted screenshots of the pages of Deathly Hallows before its release date is symptomatic of the general reasons why he feels the internet is a cesspool of hooliganism:

Today's Internet - with its blogs, wikis, and social networks - is being spoiled by nihilistic jerks. In theory, this Web 2.0 revolution is supposed to augur a new age of responsible cultural democratization in which we are all liberated from mainstream media's gatekeepers [....] Unfortunately, that's mostly just digital utopian theory. The real-world practice is increasingly ruined by the piracy and incivility of online activists. The problem is that when you do away with the rules of traditional media, when there are no editors policing the flow of information, a handful of rotten individuals can spoil everything.

I have been known, in the past, to muddy my own arguments by conflating too many things into them - mushing together ideas which really should be two or three separate discussions. But I don't hold a candle to Keen. So let me try to give him the benefit of the doubt by prying apart what I think are his basic points:
1. Incivility of discourse.
2. Piracy and intellectual property.
3. The decline of the expert.

I basically agree with Keen on the first of those three points. The internet is a hugely rude place, and often seems to not be a very smart one. Or, put another way: I expect that discourse by and of the masses will usually be conducted at whatever level is the least common denominator. What startles me is how least the common denominator often is. It's not that I'm a snob (although I am, a little bit) - it's more that I would like everyone to be more verbally articulate, and it makes me sad when they aren't. I mention this because it will be slightly germane to material below, but that's all I have to say about the first point.

The second point is out of scope for today's discussion - a wholly separate topic.

The rest of this will concentrate on the third.

Keen occasionally seems compelling on the surface, especially when he sets up talking points which conceal his more poisonous thesis - like the Harry Potter leak. It's like being "tough on crime" - when did you ever see a politician who wasn't tough on crime? It's an easy position to take. Very few people are going to stand up and defend the Potter leakers. I called them rude things at the time myself. But my basis was that it did not do electronic publishing or the internet's reputation any favors - that this act made all of us here in the internet world look bad. In other words, I anticipated exactly what happened a few days later: Keen would use this business as ammunition to bolster his thesis that we are all hooligans here. The problem is the danger that people, especially people whose actual experience of the internet is limited, will take his word for it.

One thing I specifically did not say in criticism of the leakers is that their act would "ruin the book" for people. Um, what? If you didn't want the book spoiled, then it was simple enough to not look at the leaked pages. (I didn't read Deathly Hallows until yesterday, a week behind most of the industrialized world. I had utterly no difficulty avoiding all spoilers for that book during that week. The internet is not going to leap out and ambush you.)

Keen is using the Deathly Hallows leak as a way to make people say, "Tch, tch, he's right, it's a damned shame" so that they'll be in a more hospitable state of mind for his next thesis - his real attack - which is that the decline of the expert witness - and especially, the decline of managed content (more on that below) - is a bad thing.

That one's got legs. Watch out for it. Just today, in a Boston Globe Ideas article, a well-known literary critic is bemoaning the decline of print-media literary criticism. His tirade, too, is a rant on the decline of the expert in very thin disguise.

Sven Birkerts describes himself in the first sentence as a "book reviewer," but I think he's not being honest. He writes far more like a literary critic. I have always held that a reviewer and a critic are not the same thing, and in general I have limited patience for the latter. A reviewer assesses quality; a critic assesses cultural and ideological significance. I'm not going to say that the former is useful and the latter isn't, because I'd be shooting my own foot. Let's say that the latter, even when well-done, has a more specific and limited audience by definition. Also, criticism tends to lend itself to pretension, which pisses me off. In the Ideas column, Birkerts perpetrates the following paragraph:

My impulse is to argue that if the Web at large is the old Freudian "polymorphous perverse," that libidinally undifferentiated miasma of yearnings and gratifications, unbounded and free, then culture itself - what we have been calling "culture" at least since the Enlightenment - is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.

Shoot me if I ever write something like that. It took me three reads to realize he's saying, "I think the web is a lawless wasteland of urges, and that in order for it to be what we call 'culture,' it needs some law enforcement over how ideas are expressed."

In other words, Keen's thesis, but buried under obfuscatory language. That's how you sugar-coat the idea for people who are swayed by jargon, whereas Keen is sugar-coating it for people who don't actually experience the internet much. Interesting difference of techniques; same poison pill beneath.

Thing is, Birkerts does his own thesis no favors (to my eyes, at least), because my first response to his pomp and circumstance is to think, "With experts like these, hooray for the amateur!"

At least Birkerts has the honesty to admit, right off the bat, that self-preservation is a factor in his argument. Birkerts is worried about his livelihood; I imagine he doesn't expect anyone in the new internet regime will pay him to write paragraphs like the one quoted above. Keen is less honest about his agenda, which I suspect is just to sell copies of his book.

One of the things which always strikes me, in complaints about amateur internet media, is that the complainers generally assume commercial media is, if not faultless, at least far better than internet media by comparison.

Now, I am no fan of media by the masses, simply because I think most of us aren't very good at making it. The evidence strongly suggests that most of the people who write things on the internet are lousy writers. Also lousy producers, directors, and actors. I have said several times, and in several places, that YouTube is a shining example of why creating entertainment should not be in the hands of the general public.

On the other hand, a lot of people seem to like YouTube for exactly that reason: It looks like them. This is the same basis for why many people prefer amateur (or "amateur" - professionally produced but with deliberately amateur production values) pornography to the slick stuff. It doesn't look artificial to them, it looks less like Commercial Product. I'm not knocking that. If that's what you want, great - and I would never want to cut off the source.

In other words, I don't want to ban YouTube, I just don't want to watch it myself. I also don't attend any movies where the idea is to make them look like the whole thing is grainy, home-produced, or shot on a not-very-steady Steadicam. And I don't read weblogs by people who can't write, but if you want to, that is your business. The point is availability. Choices. And offering choices is where conventional, commercial media generally fails miserably.

I read a newspaper every day because it is my preferred form of news aggregator. I would never, however, hold the Globe up as an unbiased source. Its political slant is both obvious and well-known. And that's a modest example. Television news is a wasteland. The American film industry devotes eight-tenths of its resources to trying to get sixteen-year-old boys into the theatre by repeating the same fart jokes and explosions they've done a thousand times before. Broadway is out of ideas. We won't discuss the music business. The print publishing industry has a slightly better track record than the others for getting things into print that are off the beaten path, but the economics of the best-seller mean that they can only go so far. All of these industries are scared of ideas which could be controversial or dangerous.

On the other hand, they are professionally edited, and in most cases one can assume that content is at least of a minimal standard of production, if not quality. Is this a good trade?

I bet Keen would say yes. Despite my preference for well-produced material, I say no. But never mind that: Both answers are wrong anyway.

The real fallacy here is assuming that there has to be a choice in the first place, that the matter is either/or.

Birkerts, amid the jargon, says something very important:

So far it's clear that the blogosphere is in vital ways still predatory on print, that the daisy-chain needs the pretext of some original daisy; its genius, its essence, is manifestly supplementary. This recognition gives some credence to the many who argue for coexistence, a meshing of print culture and digital, with the latter very much spawning from the former.

But I am also paranoid enough - or maybe forward-looking enough - to imagine the day when magazines and newspapers have begun to dwindle away and the world of text has shifted dominantly to screen.

I agree - partway. I think there will always be a "predatory" part - I would use a less negative term, myself - that feeds on commercial media, analyzes it, dissects it, writes fanfic about it, et cetera. I also think there will be an increasing body of media which is original to the internet - created in that medium, by it and for it and of it. Unlike Birkerts, I no longer think it inevitable that the latter will drive out the former.

I say "no longer" because a year or so ago my answer would have been different. I still think I will see the death of print newspapers in my lifetime; I'm resigned to that; but I don't think I will see any sort of serious decline in print publication, because evidence suggests that the flow is going both ways. For every reader or creator who abandons the world of print for electronic media, there is a reader or creator who is in the process of supplementing their electronic world with a print one.

I have evidence that print publishers are using the web as their farm team; I have no evidence that people are giving up reading books entirely. Going back to Harry Potter for a moment: yes, those books are a phenomenon and one can argue for days on whether the buzz will carry over to other books now - but has anyone considered the point that the internet was a vital factor in creating that buzz, that the Potter phenomenon is in many ways a New Internet phenomenon - all the discussion, all the fan works, et cetera?

What I think is that internet media and non-internet media are going to become increasingly symbiotic - that the former is going to be used as not just a promotion and discussion mechanism for the latter, but will actually inform it. I think the internet media are going to make the commercial media better. There's going to be a hell of a shakeout, because already we see that Big Media Industry are going to have to abandon the majority of their old business model, but it will happen.

Now, one thing you'll see change rapidly is the distribution model. It's changed beyond recognition in the past five years as is. In addition to being the last person in the world reading a newspaper, I'll be the last person buying commercial, pressed CDs. I'm okay with that. Everyone else will be buying their music electronically and piecemeal, and more power to them.

I was heartened today to see another Globe article that the internet is not killing public libraries - in some ways very much the opposite. Basically, people have discovered the idea of browsing library catalogs and reserving books online, augmented by the Interlibrary Loan system. Unfortunately, there was an article right below that which worried about how libraries, with their budgets cut to the bone, are going to keep paying for this. But the message is clear: There is a market for people using libraries as if they were a Netflix for books. What remains is for someone to see a commercial interest in providing this service and coming up with a chunk of cash. I am betting it will happen.

Everything people once thought they knew about distribution of content is going to change, if it hasn't changed already.

But we're not completely done with Keen and the cult of the expert.

I watch Wikipedia very closely because, to me, it is the touchstone. Wikipedia has so many ongoing problems with the "editorial expert" business that it may never resolve them all. To an extent, these problems were inevitable; it is still possible they may turn out to be fatal.

Wikipedia's editors, while not always amateurs, are volunteers. They may or may not have personal agendas. They don't always agree. The process of hammering out what is considered "definitive" in Wikipedia entries is messy, and often subject to battles and absurdities. There are people who have alleged that Wikipedia is in the hands of petty tyrants, and there's some basis for this allegation (though I don't entirely agree with it).

I have stated elsewhere that "Wikipedia will never be sane" as long as it does not have a paid, professional staff of editors. But I also qualified that statement: That doesn't mean Wikipedia isn't useful, or that it won't continue to be useful ... and it doesn't mean I would use it as an argument in favor of the primacy of the "expert."

There are times when you want an expert. Obviously. If you get someone in to work on your gas lines, or work on your electrical service panel, who is not qualified to do so, you will deserve what you get. Specialized technical knowledge can be vital. And to the extent that Wikipedia and other online sources sometimes provide that knowledge, the lack of verifiable experts is a real problem.

On the other hand, if you tried to repair your gas lines based on what you read anywhere on the web, you would again deserve what you got. There are situations for which the web is simply never going to be a wholly reliable source.

I'm okay with that, because there are other situations for which the web is a good enough source, and there are some situations for which it actually improves on the more conventional sources.

Established, known facts tend to be self-correcting. Reduced to an absurd example: If you go to a site which insists that 2 + 2 = 5, but every other site in the universe says that 2 + 2 = 4, it's pretty clear which way you should jump. A little due diligence will tell you what the majority of informed people believe to be the correct answer in almost all such cases.

In cases where there is not really such a thing as clearly established fact, such as the matter of the correct name for Gdansk or whether there is a God or whether George Bush Jr. has any redeeming qualities whatsoever, the web will quickly clue you into the nature and the scope of the debate - probably in much greater depth and volume than you ever thought possible.

Moreover, the web points out many, many things which commercial media will not. It is very difficult in some commercial channels to obtain criticism of various sacred cows and conventional wisdom - choose your favorite example - but on the web no ox goes ungored.

Not only that, but it's not as if bona fide experts are never spotted in the electronic world. There are many good pages about various topics written by people who actually know what they're doing. Over the years, several sites have offered explicit "Find out information from an expert about this topic" services, thus possibly connecting people to information they couldn't get otherwise.

The only legitimate gripe I can find in the handwringing about the decline of the expert is that it moves the burden of filtering. In mediated content, other people decide what is displayed, what you should trust. In most electronic content, you have to sift through the pile and decide what to keep, what you should trust.

Since the evidence shows that the track record of "professional" curators, mediators, editors and content-keepers is subject to the same missteps, anomalies, and biases as the amateur sifter, one wonders if the secret basis for complaints like Keen's is simply laziness.

As others have pointed out, Keen doesn't have any astounding credentials himself. He is no more a professional cultural critic than I am. This gives me an acute pain in my self-awareness gland: Should I even be writing this at all?

But, I remind myself, I differ from Keen in scope and presentation. I'm not trying to pronounce rules for the universe; I'm just over here in a corner trying to make observations quietly. I don't say they're anything else but my opinions, and I don't say they're always sound or sane. I don't claim to be an expert. In short, while I fail at it sometimes, I strive not to be a blowhard.

The internet is really good at puncturing blowhards. It's punctured me whenever I've lapsed. It has punctured Keen. The danger with Keen, though, is that he is preaching to the non-internet world as well, and they might believe him. Thus I feel that everyone here has a duty to be the fly in the ointment as much as possible.

I'm just trying to do my part.

and now back to our program

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