When the wheels come off: on information, experts, and the limits of the crowdsourced hype brigade

An excerpt from Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

…information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of diminished social and political potency.

You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself a series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two to four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold.

As with most of Postman’s withering critiques of communication technology, I find this assertion to be a bit harsh, but not unfounded. We might use the web to find ways to reduce our own carbon footprint, for example, and there are some early (though hardly decisive) indications that a more engaged form of citizenry might yet emerge online. But while I do have amazing access to instantaneous information at my fingertips, at almost any time and almost any place… it’s hard for me to argue that this in itself makes me any more effective or influential in terms of making the world a better place.

The peculiar myopia that can affect those of us immersed in the exciting world emerging technologies was brought home to me reading this account by Alfred Hermida of Robert Scoble’s keynote at the Online News Association conference.

The talk turns out to be a tour of Web 2.0 communication tools and how they are changing the nature of how we interact with information.

Scoble moves on to talk about Twitter, demonstrating the power of micro-blogging. He cites how he found out about the China earthquake through TwitterVision before it was reported.

To which I can only reply, what possible good can come of Robert Scoble knowing about an earthquake before it is reported? (Which in today’s environment must have been a span of what… five minutes?) Did he mobilize a Web 2.0 rescue team? Were global waves of emergency response funds raised via Twitter before the mainstream media itself got around to reporting the story?

I’m not suggesting that networked media can’t have a constructive role to play in these situations. Wikipedia comes to mind as a resource that has demonstrated an astonishing capability to rapidly synthesize information (that has proven useful) in response to events like these. But again, how often does sheer speed improve my capacity to act? Especially within the context of a Twitter hivemind that is always chasing the newest, buzziest story? (I don’t see too many follow-ups on the current state of Chinese earthquake victims in my Twitter feed lately.)

Another object demonstration of the limits and peculiar hubris of the Web 2.0 crowd came through my newsreader late last week, when the tech news site Mashable noted that “Robert Scoble asked the tech blogosphere’s ‘thought leaders’ to weigh in on this issue of the economy (and included Mashable amongst those he invoked)” and not surprisingly “all but declared defeat in his search for expert opinion.”

The post in which Scoble acknowledges the sheer stupidity of his exercise is itself a must-read:

In the past 18 hours I’ve read literally thousands of posts and have done almost nothing but hang out on FriendFeed. I’ve seen a LOT of idiocy. And these are supposedly from the smarter, more educated people around. People who I’ve had a beer or two with and who I count as friends and fellow Americans.

…The downside of this new media world is that you’ll hear a lot of opinions. Which one is right? I’m not always right. In fact, I’m often wrong. But I’ve counted on YOU, the audience, to help me correct that when I’m off in the deep end. Now, though, I’ve seen so much idiocy that I’m not even sure of my audience anymore. That’s how deep our loss of confidence in each other has come.

As an aside, I’ve seen Scoble post these sorts of penitent reflections on the hype-soaked discourse of his practice before, and it never seems to change how he does his work.

Why is Scoble surprised that techbloggers aren’t the best people to ask about a complex global financial crisis? Did he think to canvass the photobloggers? Why not the dentist bloggers? (There must be a dental blogger scene by now, right?) Scoble might be a guy to read when it comes to understanding modern communication technology (then again, maybe not), but to me the real power of self-publishing is that I now have the opportunity to learn the thoughts of Nouriel Roubini directly – without having to go through Tom Brokaw (or Robert Scoble) to do so.

Being an “expert” on new media does not in itself make anyone qualified to comment on what’s going down. Do we automatically assume the operator of a printing press knows all the ins and outs of literary theory? That doesn’t mean we as citizens don’t have a right (or an obligation) to learn what we can, and the power to express ourselves in a wonderful thing — but surely demonstrable expertise should count for something?

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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