A friend of mine sent me a link discussing Andrew Keen’s view that the web is bad for the ‘Cultural Economy’, because there is no quality control to select the best information, opinions and greatest artists for everyone to know about.
I had an emotional reaction to Keen and his opinion, and many bad words came to mind*. What a limited point of view he has of what us ignorant masses (we are, but so is he) who need to be told what to like, what is important. He laments “The failure of respect for a traditional industrial meritocracy” including doctors, lawyers, lawmakers, editors, professors, etc. He also misses the tremendous failures that exactly that ‘meritocracy’, now oligarchy and minions, have produced.
Keen has a Gruberian ruling-eye view, so doesn’t grasp that we ordinary people were taking care of ourselves long before the first editor arrived on the planet, and did it by gossiping and exchanging info in all of our social groupings. He has worked in the internet and web world, how can he not understand ‘peer-to-peer’? That isn’t a new concept to ordinary people, it is the way we run our lives and communities.
How did he think civilization ever got going in the first place, in those long-ago dark ages when nobody could write and their world was already pretty complex, e.g. rise and fall of gentry and aristocracy with associated war and new courts and laws that would work against them, …
Keen is a perfect example of someone who mistakes deep knowledge and understanding in a few areas as sufficient basis for good judgment about the rest of the world. So does every other human, but we aren’t doing anything but mis-informing our friends, and we have social mechanisms to correct for local conditions.
Keen seems to have no understanding of the limitations of his points of view. Nobody else, either, but ditto.
You can BS your friends all day on opinions about the world out there, but when you make a recommendation about what to do or how to think about something important we all know you owe them serious thinking, no flaws and full disclosure of possible limitations, as you understand them, and how your understanding of your limitations might be wrong. Anything less than that is failing in your duty as a transferring agent of understanding to humans you respect. Those failures can threaten lives. We humans-in-groups are good judges of other people’s opinions about things-local, however poor we might be as individuals.
Keen hugely under-estimates the complexities of other realities, ones he has no experience of, no knowledge of. Our greatest minds would be morons when it came to planning planting given the amount of wheat, oats, rye and peas seeds available to the family without borrowing and maybe going into debt and having to sell a child or two into slavery if a crop fails; soil characteristics of the strips of land to be planted; past rotations of strips of land; village elders’ consensus weather prediction of how much rain there would be this year and when given weather patterns to date; how strong the cow is to pull the plow and how that will change given the difficulty/conditions of the fields and the order they are plowed in, given the amount of fodder she has had in the last few months and the size of the calf she has to produce milk for and how fast the grass is greening and will grow given the expected weather; recalculated every night given progress and weather, exhausted as you were from very hard physical labor, …
Anyone who can’t extend that list a long way has no experience and no imagination. Those people’s lives depended on that kind of very multi-dimensional judgment, damn right the smart ones did better and there was no second generation for dumb parents. Their kids starved and/or were sold into slavery.
My grandfather told me about hearing conversations when he was growing up where parents and older kids discussed whether they should buy 5 cents worth of turnip seed and be very careful in planting it or 10 cents worth and get the work done faster.
We all do those same over-estimates of our judgment. In our own experience, we know that people who don’t have our knowledge about some topic always have dumb opinions about it. Obviously, it follows that if you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t have opinions you can’t back up in spades. Less-than-optimal results follow, and those can be critical when the world is hard.
And yet, that over-estimation of our own knowledge and judgment is built into our minds, everyone does it, we see it as the source of failure all around us. That mental flaw must have been an advantage in human evolution.
I speculate***, that this limitation worked in the old days because it made everyone suspicious of opinion that was not rooted in their own local environment. When you are living close to the edge, and you must do the thing that is most probable to produce at least the minimum required calories, you are right to distrust the ‘better idea’ despite all evidence, because it would take generations to accumulate enough experience to know that it was both better in average production and also didn’t drop bad years below starvation level. There is a lot of evidence that animal minds are optimized to satisfice, not optimize. We only make progress when years of surplus allow us to experiment.
We individuals work through the local understandings and form the best judgments by exchanging information with our social group and being sensitive to everyone’s point of view, that is innate. It isn’t an optimal algorithm, it has failure modes, but it satisfices on average and produces very good results very often. (There is lots of research showing group judgments are better than any of its individuals when the group knows how to work as a group).
How could Keen have missed all of the evidence of that peer-to-peer exchange leading to group judgments and that research showing how well it works? Everyone is constantly sending each other links to interesting music, dance, literature, opinion. Gruberian points of view perhaps don’t agree with the evaluations, but my observations say the best stuff rises to the top, Google’s PageRank algorithm is the way we work. Indeed, there is ever-more less-than-great work on the web, and we who search for new good stuff have to sift through a lot to find it. But the evidence is that process works, as the good stuff continues to get better and more diverse, with more fans/views. Evidence of that progress is fuzzed by waves of short-lived popularity, and the fact that it takes ever-more talent to rise to the top because the competition is ever-tougher and there is so much good past talent to enjoy.
That wave of opinions from us out here in fly-over country have revealed Keen’s vaunted professional editors to have produced the greatest propaganda in all of history by Judith Miller-equivalent oligarchy-CIA plants known or as yet un-exposed, the most filtered, framed and spun ‘information’ in human history. Can you tell the difference between CNN. MSNBC and FOX on anything that affects our oligarchy’s interests? Nancy Pelosi agrees with Rupert Murdoch on all of those. VIOXX scandal, banksters, the list of very serious failures and negative trends is endless.
I think Keen’s opinion is no better in any other area of culture : it seems to me that the more people doing videos of all kinds, the more interesting it has become, and the same for all the other arts. Has he not explored Youtube? Every arts fair in our area has amazing photography and other kinds of arts. Traditional arts such as quilting continue to improve at every county faire, according to my mother, a deep expert. A visit to any tourist town will find sculpture and paintings most of us find very excellent, wish we could afford them. There are many 1000s of self-published ebooks every year, and many have fans. How can it be bad to have many tastes and many sub-genres catering to them? There are 1000s of blogs that I can find with a search,very nearly all nothing special from my POV, but also I continuously find new points of view that are interesting, thought-provoking. I mostly find them via our real-life pagerank-equivalent social exchanges rather than Google.
Peasant peer-to-peer and group decisions about local issues produces good opinions, we didn’t survive otherwise.
I think what Keen’s class is so concerned about is that we peasants have escaped control of their world-view, that we can decide what the important questions are and who we trust. We never really trusted them and their world-view, certainly always disparaged them****. We have not opposed them strongly because times were good, we were busy with what seemed more important. But now times are trending bad despite all of their promises and claims, and it is time to start re-imposing local judgments lest we have to sell our kids into slavery.
Their loss of the information wars is a symptom of the failure of our Status Quo, of its legitimacy. Indeed, partly our fault for not applying more local knowledge faster and harder. It never made sense that more rules make the world a better place, all of our experience says best opinion is always “well, it depends …” followed by a lot of discussion considering many, many factors. We can’t write rules for our local world, the global must be at least as complex.
Our world works because we work hard as communities at local optimizations and test them extensively. We adopt other’s well-tested local optimizations cautiously. His world fails because their best big-picture thinking has not had a number of minds involved proportional to the number of people affected. It can’t have taken into account a number of factors proportional to the range of local environments his rules will be imposed upon. It cannot have been tested as carefully in that range of local environments.
Our bottom-up model scales, as it evolves more complex systems from working complex systems. Keen’s elite ‘design complex systems from scratch’ approach produces Obamacare and associated web site. Local innovation is used by the best-managed companies, whereas the most stultifying environments are the most top-down and have the largest policy manuals. The best managed companies judge managers by their subordinate’s opinions, most don’t. Our strategy of local buffer stocks protecting the productivity of critical production units (families and animals) has been rediscovered both as ‘prepping’ and as the key to factory productivity. Our systems have evolved to cope with bad times, central planning’s cost-accounting-driven MRP systems and Just In Time systems are fragile in the face of disruption.
Our strength in hard times is community, social connections with everyone, working hard as families preparing for the futures we can imagine. Flexible minds and careful thinking by our community are key to our family’s good fortunes. Work at those for your grandchildren’s sake.
Cautious local progress as a community has been Conservative since the dawn of civilization.
*As an honestly honest member of the Honest Party, I confess I edited this very heavily to remove the evidence of emotional reaction. And that I am a complete amateur in most areas Keen talks about, but do pay attention and work hard to understand that external reality we all share. I can back up my opinions in spades, except in the rare cases I am wrong.
**Also as an honestly etc, I must point out that I occasionally correspond with Charles Hugh Smith, very much like his blog, and that I am name-dropping here.
***based on my more-than-generalist but less-than-specialist knowledge of evolution and years of professional working with and study of systems
****Piled Higher and Deeper jokes, country people’s putdowns of the academic world, this ironic example via dumb farmers explaining their kid’s degrees to each other. The are many, many in the genre. Other examples are my dad’s very long list of the dumb ideas by the University’s ag people amplified by the agricultural extension services — multiflora rose pushed as an environmentally-friendly fence-row hedge followed by the multiflora rose eradication program is one I remember. My mother has the same for school system fads.
While writing this, I realized that the areas where our opinions go most wrong, e.g. “Muslims are evil”, are exactly where we don’t have local experience to apply.