Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fighting for the New Snobbery

The best things come to those who wait etc, and one of 2006's better essays, on Time magazine's dated, pretentious and precipitate award of 'Person of the Year' (among previous laureates, A.Hitler) to 'anyone who uses the internet, democratises information' et seq ad nauseam) is reprinted in full below. That Marcel Berlins' jeremiad should appear in the Guardian, a newspaper whose relationship with user-generated slurry, sorry, content, seems almost promiscuously intense, is signally ironic. Any cynic with a black enough heart will do worse than consult Paul Fussell's superb 1991 polemic BAD, or the Dumbing of America, to trace the roots of the monstrous fraud behind this so-called 'democratisation' of the media, written long before the web's advance. There is one nice para on CBS's Dan Rather, in which the qualities of that blameless broadcaster are stressed not in terms of his prowess as a reporter or journalist, but as a 'regular guy'. As Fussell puts it; 'who wants distinction, anyway?' Fussell also argues, via De Tocqueville, that people rarely feel as 'no-count' as in a democracy; why else phone-ins, viewer participations, tabloid bellowing, moral panics, if only to reassure Ordinary Joe that he counts, even if in reality he might not?

As a journalist I declare a selfish interest in 'ordinary' people in the media. I have studied subjects in the arts and social sciences to graduate level; I have long years of experience, gifts, the wisdom of a profession, above all the eagerness to learn more within my fields (including a way to express such things without such insufferable pretentiousness); I write about what I know; I hope it reaches people. I can do what I do rather well. Despite borderline knowledge, I have no desire or need to march into a pharmaceutical laboratory and impose my ideas, any more than I have a desire to change the course of a rugby or volleyball match. And so, I 've a downer on a dental hygienist from Porto Alegre or a web designer from Stalybridge getting into print about something (Magnus Magnusson's underwear? VD in the Andaman Isles? the size of Kerry Katona's nipples?) about which they are not remotely qualified to comment on (cf Wittgenstein). Conversely, and egg-sure, they would despise my own depositions on the colour of that mouth-swill and web design, and rightly so. If I want to know about either, I want it from someone who knows - and who will receive a fee for deposing his or her opinions, with, if necessary, a fee for whoever has sub-edited it into acceptable copy. How many England cricket fans would have contradicted Duncan Fletcher's coaching decisions in the Ashes series? Doubtless many; but it's preferable to see Fletcher fail by his own means than entertain and act on amateur ravings apparently legitimised by cybernetic publication. Ditto I'd like to see informed, preferably balanced and professional journalists paid decent wages to fill space, not gobby geeks.

I despise ordinary people until they prove themselves to be otherwise, as an individual or as part of a dialectically-driven mass. And expect to be regarded thus by any right thinking person. By the way, if this makes me a snob, then I refer detractors to Jane Fonda's line in Neil Simon's script of California Suite (1978); 'thank God there are a few of us left'.

Anyhoo. Marcel Berlins. Guardian. 20.12.06

Time magazine's "Person of the Year" awards were started in 1927, since when there have been some pretty dodgy winners, Hitler among them. They clearly should not be taken too seriously, other than as a subject of mild end-of-the-year controversy. The 2006 winner, though, has troubled me for reasons that go well beyond mere dissatisfaction with the verdict. The winner was "You" - that is, us - and to make sure we got the message, when we look at Time we see ourselves in a mirror embedded in the cover. Actually, the You is not quite all of us, merely those of us who have contributed to the growth of the internet and all it contains - for instance blogging and participating in YouTube, MySpace or other "user-generated" sites.

A spokesman for Time admitted that, had they chosen a single person who "most affected the news and our lives, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse", it would have been President Ahmadinejad of Iran. But a lot of people would have been upset at that decision, so they plumped for the feel-good group, You.

Time's editor, Richard Stengel, commented: "You, not us, are transforming the information age." That was a profoundly depressing statement, as was the fuller citation explaining the reasoning: "For seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game ..."

The misguided and misleading use of the term democracy in this context, and the manifestly incorrect claim that You have conquered the professionals, are bad enough. But my main objection is wider. The Time award and the reasons for it promote what I believe to be one of the most pernicious and disturbing philosophies of our age, extolling the cult of what is often patronisingly referred to as the "ordinary" person. I emphasise immediately that if I use the word "ordinary", it is in quotation marks - it is not to suggest inferiority or any comparison with an elite of extraordinary people. The philosophy I object to, which the internet's information explosion has fostered, is that the "ordinary" person is as - no, even more - important to the dissemination of knowledge, information and opinion as the expert or the professional.

It manifests itself in various ways, here and elsewhere. South Korea has a news website, OhMyNews, that uses "citizen journalists" to provide most of its material. It has some 40,000 non-professional contributors; they are, of course, untested and unvetted, their submissions unchecked, their motives unknown. The reader of the website can have no idea about the accuracy of the information on it; yet it is one of the main sources of news for South Koreans. Nor can entrants into the social network sites for the young, such as MySpace, have any real idea of the genuineness, truthfulness or hidden motives of their fellow joiners; and it is impossible for the web's operators to monitor who registers. Not surprisingly, meetings engineered over the internet have caused anguish and tragedy as well as happy associations.

Then there is the proliferation of - though they don't yet call them that yet - "citizen reviewers". Hardly a newspaper here (this one included) is free from readers' opinions on the holidays they have taken, restaurants they have dined at, films they have seen and so on; it seems that no cultural or leisure activity escapes being assessed by "ordinary" people.

A few months ago the usually reliable Routier Guide to good, honest, affordable English eateries folded. People were no longer buying such guides, we were told. Instead, they searched for places to eat on various websites carrying accounts by people who had chosen to make public their dining experiences. A favourable opinion on a website by, say, a DS of Bristol (who may well be, a recent survey revealed, the chef using a pseudonym) takes precedence over a balanced review of a meal by a trained, independent inspector.

How long can it be before professional critics and reviewers - people who know what they are talking about, who perhaps have had years of experience in their field - are jettisoned in favour of "ordinary" people's views? After all, the expert costs money; the amateurs come free. Why do we need our own film/restaurant/book reviewers when hundreds of cinemagoers/diners/readers are only too anxious to tell us what they think? But Time's assertion that those working for nothing are "beating the pros at their own game" is nonsense. They are providing a different service, an opinion based not on expertise and experience, but on their less tutored feelings. I am not saying that the amateur's view is less legitimate than the professional's; but it should not be given some sort of mystical prominence.

Looking at the information revolution as a whole, the greater participation by You has been a benefit. But the movement is losing its sense of proportion. It has become too successful, too cocky. The role played by those who possess special talents, skills, knowledge, training and creativity should not be undermined by the desire to include the remainder.

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