The Cult of the Expert
Michiko Kakutani is sparing with her usual venom in her review of Andrew Keen's "The Cult of The Amateur - how the internet is killing our culture", (in her words) "a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the “wisdom of the crowd.”
The Horror! Perhaps Michiko fears she could be dethroned herself? But let's move on:
For one thing, Mr. Keen says, “history has proven that the crowd is not often very wise,” embracing unwise ideas like “slavery, infanticide, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Britney Spears.”
I'll leave the first two alone, but how can it not be obvious that the responsibility for these last two examples lies entirely with the "experts" and not the crowd?
The initial popular support for George W. Bush's war in Iraq was a direct consequence of the Experts' relentless and passionate cheerleading for the war.
The Crowd relied on the Experts from reputable news outlets like The New York Times to provide them with the accurate information they needed about the necessity of invading Iraq. The Experts failed, miserably, at this task.
Maybe the entire Corporate Media apparatus was coerced by Neocon Evil Geniuses or maybe the Experts (and those who sign their paychecks) willingly collaborated with them. Maybe a combination of the two. But don't go blaming the Crowd for this mess.
Actually, some in the Crowd decided to go around the Gatekeepers of information and opinion and find things out for themselves by looking up and comparing different sources on the internets. Guess what? These Amateurs (Progressive Bloggers) were proven right. Their theories about what a disaster the war would be were confirmed in reality.
How did this happen? Was the buildup to the war in Iraq just a fluke or the most glaring example of structural flaws in the cult of Expert Elites?
- Elites, being smaller numbers of people, are easier to manipulate than the entire Crowd.
"You can fool some of the people some of the time..." The Neocons were, very effectively, able to fool the realatively small number of Gatekeepers of news and opinion. They, in turn, broadcast the foolishness to the Crowd from their elite positions. Mission accomplished.
In light of the past 4-5 years of American History, it seems obvious that granting the Expert Elite exclusive domain over news and information is structurally very dangerous.
- The Experts are not always experts.
Ideally, those people who reach the position of being part of the Elite, get there entirely by merit, because they are the best and the brightest in their field.
But in reality, membership in the Elite is often granted instead because of successful networking, demonstrations of loyalty and ideological similarity.
Progressive bloggers have proven, on a daily basis, for years now that members of the Media Elite routinely fail to research even the basic "facts" contained in their articles.
- The Expert Elite will protect those in their group and thereby resist accountability.
The last 4-5 years have also proven that there are no consequences for those in the Media Elite who were completely, disastrously wrong about Iraq. Many of these people have actually "failed upward" and advanced their careers as a result.
As a small group, the Elite rewards members for cohesion with the group rather than professional excellence.
- Given their position in society and the nature of broadcast media, Expert Elites hold a disproportionate amount of power to influence the political decisions of the Crowd.
Media Elites still promote the illusion that they are merely reflecting the "mood" and opinion of the Crowd. Not only are they often completely at odds with what the public thinks and feels, judging by the evidence from surveys, but they also conveniently ignore their power to shape public opinion.
Getting back to Britney Spears, is there any doubt the reason so many have bought her music is not because of bad judgement on the Crowd's part, but rather because she has been relentlessly promoted in every imaginable mass medium by the megacorporation that is profiting from her?
Expert Elite controlled Mass Media tells people what to think, what to buy, and how to vote. Why would megacorps and politicians spend so much money on media if it didn't work that way?
This is how things have been working for the past decades, but the Internets, as a medium, are remarkably unfit for traditional top-down, one-way communication. The Expert Elites are scared shitless and have been actively either disparaging the Web Utopians or attempting to co-opt them.
- Mass Media Expert Elites are not really Experts in any kind of technical or scientific discipline.
I certainly am not advocating for Amateur architects or rocket scientists. This is where the central metaphor of Keen's book breaks down. From what I can tell from Kakutani's review, Keen is complaining mostly about amateur political pundits, cultural critics, and artists/musicians. But he implies that there are Experts in these fields similar to Experts in science and therefore turning things over to the Amateurs is scary and dangerous.
It's fairly obvious - again on a daily basis by reading Progressive blogs' critique of the factually challenged drivel put out by the Corporate Media - writing an opinion column does not require accreditation and superior training.
Carrying this metaphor forward, if the Expert Elite of architects and scientists had failed as miserably at their task as the Media Expert Elites have in recent years, we would see buildings crumbling and airplanes falling out of the sky.
You could say that punditry and cultural criticism do not have the same measurable consequences as scientific disciplines but I disagree. Look at where we are now as a country as a result of the Experts in the fields of Journalism and Politics: massive deficits, a disastrous war and absolute crap music on the radio.
Shout out to "Philosopher 2.0"
UPDATE: a perfect example from Ken Silverstein in the LA Times:
The decline of undercover reporting — and of investigative reporting in general — also reflects, in part, the increasing conservatism and cautiousness of the media, especially the smug, high-end Washington press corps. As reporters have grown more socially prominent during the last several decades, they've become part of the very power structure that they're supposed to be tracking and scrutinizing.
Chuck Lewis, a former "60 Minutes" producer and founder of the Center for Public Integrity, once told me: "The values of the news media are the same as those of the elite, and they badly want to be viewed by the elites as acceptable."