The Slow Wheezing Death of the Expert
When I opened the news app on my phone this morning, I noticed something that left me a little unsettled. There were dozens of journalistic voices represented as I flipped through the collected stories, but they all sounded the same. Not just in tone, but in perspective. It was as if a single person had written all of them, and that made me wonder. Can I trust the media?
Do I accept these stories as fact because I selected them, or did I select them because they are factual?
Information follows the model initially crafted by the porn industry, filtering itself to suit our highly specific needs. However you’re bent up inside, porn has adapted to you before you’ve even admitted to yourself what you like. Now general information is treated as a similar commodity. It’s all too easy for your apps to only feed you data that reinforces what you already prefer. The more you consume, the more that’s what you want to consume. Like your mom feeding you mushed up bananas when you were two. The result is remarkably similar, except that you’re just regurgitating back onto the internet instead of all over your bib.
As this urge toward a closed informational loop progresses, it conquers new areas of our lives. Where we once read the opinions of a favorite movie critic, we now skim the aggregated opinions of hundreds of them. The same goes for restaurants, or anything else we might find on Yelp.
This doesn’t sound like such a terrible thing until you follow it a few more steps: from cultural opinions to climate science to news. We have inverted the model that our parents perfected, where a limited number of trusted sources arbitrated what we knew about the world. Now we have a grand mirror, where the opinions of the spectators are reflected at them with stunning intensity. The framework we’ve developed for this portrays everything as fact rather than opinion, and our ability tell the difference is being quietly dissolved.
Walter Cronkite has been replaced by the zombie horde.
Okay, we aren’t exactly zombies. Yet. And the crowdsourcing of news isn’t entirely a bad thing. Civilized discourse all too often masks a gradual sliding in the direction of atrocity, and segments of our collective voice are keenly interested in bringing public awareness into nasty little social corners. The acquisition of power will often trigger our darker impulses, and it’s never a bad thing to improve accountability. You might trust yourself to navigate the boundary between taste and prejudice, but you could be making a subtle mistake. A gatekeeper, political, cultural, or otherwise, is no further removed from this tendency than anyone else.
But doesn’t it feel like we may have gone too far? The idea of objectivity itself has been dismantled. It risks becoming irrelevant, as we have started to genuinely prefer the sticky comforts of our own opinions. Media sources have refined our experience; We no longer yammer into a room full of other public yammerers, now we rant and whisper into a closet filled with a self-selecting, like-minded cohort. The web helps us find each other, to the exclusion of competing voices and ideas.
There is no longer any such thing as an outside expert. We have taken to declaring ourselves the experts. We have started to resent the idea that truth can be delivered to us from an external source, especially one that doesn’t have a voice like our own, or that might have an agenda we don’t trust. We want our truth to align itself to our emotional understanding of the world.
At the same time, we are unwilling to confront the roots of that understanding. Easier and more satisfying to check the news feed and be told that we were right all along. Which is one thing if everyone is trying to be Roger Ebert, and another when we’re all Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity.