Thursday, September 3, 2009

why educated elites are lame, by a member of the educated elite

Great piece this morning at Technollama about the struggle between technophobia and technophilia.

The blog's author, Andres Guadamuz, cites a quote he attributes to Douglas Adams:
“There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”

(If Adams is right, then I better speed up my tech-immersion: I turn 32 on Monday. Also, I'm officially putting all innovative technology designers on notice: Everything awesome must be designed and made public within the next three years.)

The Adams quote aligns with that old political axiom: If you're not liberal when you're young, you have no heart; if you're not conservative when you're old, you have no brains.

Both point to a key characteristic of most humans: the impulse toward self-preservation. For all their whinging about the dangers of participatory media, many if not most anti-tech curmudgeons will, when backed into a corner, acknowledge the democratic possibilities of new media, even if they're not sure those possibilities will ever be realized. As I explained in a recent post, I believe that people who engage in pro/con debates about social media become more strident in public than they are in private.

Guadamuz addresses a key issue of what he calls "the war between old media and the internet": the fact that when everyone is a potential media outlet, a lot of what gets published is drivel and dross. He writes:

We will always need some authoritative and well-written version of events, and for that the traditional publishing mechanisms will continue to exist. However, social media has come to allow more people’s voices to be made available. Is this a good thing? I personally think that it is a fundamental and empowering change in society, one that could potentially create a more participative and rich intellectual environment. Is there a lot of dross out there? Certainly! But there is also a lot of dross in traditional media, as any thinking person who picks up a copy of Heat magazine will attest to.

Guadamuz is right, of course. But, more importantly, the dross that exists on the internet has always existed; it's just that until the emergence of participatory media, the educated elites never had to lower themselves to engaging with it. Lame ideas, poorly designed creative works, ignorant or bigoted political stances, and individual identity work had no avenue for widespread expression, and so the people in charge got to act like none of the above actually existed. And, for all cultural intents and purposes, none of the above actually did exist.

Let me put a finer point on this: The decline-in-quality argument is an elitist stance in reaction to the transformative democratic potential of social media for the unwashed masses. I say this as an educated elite, as someone who has benefited as much as the next guy from the ability to participate in the dominant group's dominant Discourse.

People have always had stupid ideas and uninformed opinions; but what makes social media so powerfully transformative is that it allows people to not only communicate but also to refine, clarify, and potentially reject those ideas and opinions. Private opinions brought out in the sun are nearly always better than private opinions, privately held--especially when nearly everybody has approximately the same ability to express and circulate their beliefs.

This does not, by the way, make me an uncritical utopianist. I am aware that participatory media platforms allow stupid ideas to gain adherents and to therefore gain power. I'm also aware that these platforms make it so that more stupid ideas are more readily available, and that it becomes increasingly difficult--both individually and culturally--to separate the wheat from the chaff.

That's ok by me. Worrying about how to filter more opinions is way better than worrying about how to provide more people with platforms for expressing their opinions.*

*Note: We still need to worry about how to provide more people with platforms for expressing their opinions.


scottellington said...

"I personally think that it is a fundamental and empowering change in society, one that could potentially create a more participative and rich intellectual environment."

When educated elites do not engage with The Great Unwashed except to ignore and define lame...because preaching technological egalitarianism while practicing academic elitism leaves the mass of ignored commenters to infer hypocritical duplicity in their intellectual leadership. And that's not unfamiliar, regardless of the age of the platform.

Laura said...

Freedom of speech has never enjoyed so much freedom. We can argue about the quality of the speech and we can take a subjective stance that ideas we don't agree with are stupid, but that's the great thing about new media. If @bigot posts some small-minded drivel, I can dismiss @bigot with two clicks. *@bigot* *unfollow*.

But even most of the blogs I encounter are informed by something, even if it's something that's nothing. The problem is deciphering what that something is and determining whether it's accurate, cogent, and whether it agrees with my belief system. Otherwise, it's just chaff--ignorant and bigoted.

That, I'd argue, is a big problem with the format of these media we have so available. It's too easy to skip over the things we disagree with and click back to in 1996.

Anonymous said...

I think you're missing the problem with the wheat and chaff. It's not that the presence of so much dross makes meaningful communication more difficult, the problem is, in the economy of clicks and links, the quality of the content is irrelevant - good ideas and bad ideas are equally monetizable and equally irrelevant in way that only digital networked communications makes possible.

For instance, the two most popular citizen journalism sites, and, are owned by a reactionary conservative billionaire. The problem is not that he will attempt to bend these grassroots outlets to reflect his crappy point of view, but that he *won't* - he does not care about the content, he cares about monetizing it. Then he'll take that money skimmed from the clicks on all the ineffectual 'net babble about this, that and everything, and use it to fund useful stuff, like lobbyists and anti-choice and anti-gay political groups...



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