Are we watching the onset of a concerted and sustained — and sustainable? — reaction against Web 2.0, or are we witnessing the flickering embers of an arrogant dying empire? I hope neither is the case.
Leading the charge is Michael Gorman. In his posts, “The Sleep of Reason” (Part I and Part II), he cites: “…evidence of a tide of credulity and misinformation that can only be countered by a culture of respect for authenticity and expertise in all scholarly, research, and educational endeavors.”
He takes to task — properly, I believe — the ridiculous concept of Digital Maoism, quoting Jaron Lanier, who has defined a ‘new online collectivism’ as: “.…nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force.”
This re-statement of the so-called ‘hive mentality’, most notably described in Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, is a limited concept that has been hyped far beyond its real worth (and far beyond Surowiecki’s own intentions in describing the phenomenon) in order to sell more books and to justify the fanciful yearnings of the terminally-Utopian! A brief glance at the tragic situation in Gaza at this moment in time offers little evidence for the power of the ‘all-wise collective’ or the hive mentality.
Gorman, with good reason, hits out at “…an increase in credulity and an associated flight from expertise…” that seems to be occurring generally, citing the current rise in the popularity of alternative medicines, creationism and ‘situational science”.
Grotesquely, he equates this ‘sleep of reason’ with the growth of Web 2.0. He needs to open his eyes and look beyond his narrow arrogant horizon; if he did, he would be able to see the large numbers of people engaged in using and developing Web 2.0 who entirely agree with his quest to maintain rationality, authenticity and authority where it is required. This is a pity, because his message, while confused, is largely a correct and worthwhile one. For instance, he feels that we need:
“.…to extend into the digital world the virtues of authenticity, expertise, and scholarly apparatus that have evolved over the 500 years of print…”
I agree entirely with this. The confusion, unfortunately, causes Gorman to tilt at windmills. For instance, he quotes Andrew Keen, who writes (in the book I did not buy), that the ‘Cult of the Amateur’, “…worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyoneâ€”even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst usâ€”can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves.”
Keen’s use of language, even in this very short extract, is fundamentally dishonest, and indeed, makes a mockery of the very authenticity that he and Gorman seek. Web 2.0 and its social consequences do not ‘worship’ the amateur, they merely ‘enable’ the amateur. The new Web does indeed enable the poorly educated and inarticulate to express themselves — interesting use of ‘should’ by Keen above — but only Olympian arrogance would see this as something negative. Today, we absolutely need ever-greater powers of discrimination if we are to continue to separate the good and the worthwhile from the purely self-indulgent and the claptrap, but I cannot think of a single good reason why this state of affairs should somehow be painted as the end of civilization as we know it. Instead, we have to continue to pursue the power of education to whittle away at the misinformed, the mistaken and the misguided — no change there then!
A simple example: I occasionally listen to some of the music in Garageband. Over the past 18 months or so since I first set foot on the site, I have come across perhaps fifteen of twenty pieces of music that I consider to be worth listening to again and again. That is a very tiny proportion of the many thousands of tracks that are submitted to the site every week (and, of course, I cannot listen to them all). However, rather than rail against the many hundreds of, obviously amateur, musicians who use the site, I discriminate according to my own tastes and criteria, and I take pleasure in being able to pick out the occasional gem from amongst the dross.
The point is, it was ever thus! The digital media merely amplifies and expands the number and range of people who are able to indulge in creativity of various kinds. If they are able to take pleasure from that, who am I to tell them that they should go back to doing whatever the ‘poorly-educated and inarticulate’ did before digital media was invented? Gorman’s problem, and Keen’s problem, is an interesting one to dissect. They, I am sure, feel more than able to continue to practise the discrimination and fine judgement that they have always had. So, their complaint cannot be that they themselves are having problems discriminating and judging. Their complaint is that the great unwashed are not able, not capable indeed, of practising that same level of discrimination and judgement. Is it simply that the ‘poorly-educated and inarticulate’ are now in the faces of Gorman and Keen and are no longer hidden away beneath their blanket of ignorance?
The position of the likes of Gorman and Keen is similar to the afficionado of classical music who looks down his nose at those who enjoy the popular classics used in television advertising. It is simple intellectual arrogance.
Michael Gorman, ultimately, has a strong argument to make, and one that needs to be made, but he blights his own argument by tilting at the wrong targets. I agree with him that we need to drive the same level of authenticity that is evident in some (by no means all) of print culture into digital culture. To do so effectively, though, he and others need to build alliances with the very many who are deeply involved in that digital culture and who also want to extend authenticity, authority and evidence-based reasoning to the further reaches of the Web.
Come down off your high horses and we might get somewhere!