Saturday, September 13, 2008

Cult of the Professional

I am certainly not the first person to flip the language of Andrew Keen's 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, and reflect on how he is suffering from, and trying to impose on all of us, the cult of the professional. But I have been recently reminded of how pervasive this cult of the professional is in our society.

In Keen's book we are told that a terrible thing is happening, all kinds of people are connecting to each other online and sharing their views with each other and this "amateur content" is destroying "our cultural standards and moral values." I could, complain about how Keen's view is stuck somewhere in the past, but this pro-establishment view is thoroughly entrenched in our culture and regularly keeps otherwise rational people from understanding the radical reformation of our society that is underway.

In one recent conversation a seemingly well-educated person told me that she only reads reviews of movies in the New Yorker and thinks it is ridiculous that people would trust average people's individuals views on movies instead of a trusting a "professional movie reviewer."

I thought she must be joking, so I laughed... which did not seem to go over well.

So I pointed out that I would much rather have the opinions of other liberal dads with daughters about a movie than some "professional" in New York who I may have nothing in common with and who may be evaluating the movie based on criteria meaningless to me. It was fascinating to hear her angry retort:
"sure, and someday maybe we'll go into a science classroom and anyone who wants to will get up and give the lecture instead of someone who actually knows something about science!"
Wow, I thought. This really misses the whole point. Whether a movie is good or not is about a statement of preference. Sure, a professional videographer might have something to say about the quality of the camera work -- but when I am reading a review, I just want to know whether or not I will have a good time!

So in cases of preference, an "amateur" opinion can be just as (if not more) valuable than "professional" opinion since it may more accurately reflect a view that has relevance for the recipient. So what about cases where opinion is not at stake, where presumably there is some agreed upon "facts?"

Certainly it is true that if I want specific knowledge I want to go to someone whom I trust to have the knowledge -- so in a science class I would want an instructor that has, through some professional process, been certified as having such knowledge... But then shall we leave aside that such certification can be unreliable ?

Which brings up a second dimension -- how does one becomes a professional and be "certified" -- and why do we assume that the way in which "professionals" are certified is better than any other method for identifying experts? It is a testament to how deeply we believe in "professionals" that we want to see an institutional certification and that this is more trusted than recognition from a community.

What I see happening in this "amateur" media is that the audience, instead of editors, are selecting the best content producers. They are recommending the best producers by reading them, linking to them, and recommending them. This does present a challenge when "facts" are at stake -- the writer most preferred by an audience might not be the one who is the most accurate. And it certainly doesn't put any sort of control in place for reviewing material for accuracy.

But this has a way of self-correcting over time. The web provides a platform for debate. Over time on any truly controversial issue, the conversation becomes a bell curve -- advocates on one side and opponents on the other with the bulky middle made up of people who don't really care.

And hasn't that always been true with the "professionals" as well?

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