Miscellaneous Ramblings

The Internet vs. the Consensus of the Competent

Charles Moore - 2002.02.25 - Tip Jar

Dan Knight posted an interesting column last week that stemmed from a private debate he was having with the Webmaster of another Mac site about credentials and professionalism.

The other party in this debate had written:

Let's face, sites like LEM are out of their element on the Web. . . . [site name removed], which is run by pros, written by pros, has the best content bar none . . . I have beem working 40 hours a week . . . building a truly professional which is NOT a business.

We will see in year [reduced to six months in a later email] who is left standing and who is viewed as a professional . . . Let's face it, we have the best educated, most professional writing staff on the Mac Web, we have more professors, technicians and artists that anyone else, with more degrees than any can shake a stick at - we are not hobbyists; we do not have kids writing here, or nonprofessionals doing any of it, and give that I work so hard on it it's hardly a spare time operation. I suggest you remove that line. <snip>

Dan, a word of advice - please don't take yourself so seriously. The Mac Web is . . . a place to exchange ideas and information and build relationships in a civilized manner.

Dan answered:

I thought that's what we were doing with Low End Mac, and it pains me to have another Mac webmaster call me ignorant, state that I'm out of my element, and imply that Low End Mac's writers aren't educated enough. The quarter-million readers who visit LEM must be buffoons not to see it. His three emails on this subject make me want to take a lot of cheap shots.

I don't know who the other person in that exchange was, or which website he runs, but I don't blame Dan for being miffed at some of the comments.

Some of us don't have the luxury of treating our Mac web endeavors as a hobby. This is my day job. However, I also agree with Dan that:

The best writers tend to be amateurs (by the original definition of the word) - those who do something because they are passionate about it. It's a great thing when someone can combine their passion and their profession.

Quality and Credentials

I would go farther than that to declare that dedicated amateurs tend to be better at most things than professionals.

I personally have what I consider to be a healthy skepticism about credentials and professional gatekeeping as they pertain to fields such as journalism. I'm sure that there are many fine writers who have journalism degrees, and they probably learned a thing or two in journalism school that will help them to achieve success in a journalistic career, but my overriding contention is that if they weren't already good writers when they entered journalism school, they still won't be good writers after graduating from it. Writing talent is something that can be honed and polished through the teaching of technique, but the raw material has to be there in the first place, and journalism school isn't the only place when can learn to be a skillful journalist.

Like Dan Knight and a whole lot of eminent journalists outside the computer orbit whose names you would recognize, I don't have any formal journalistic training. However, the fact that I have made my living writing professionally for the past 15 years and have been published for fee in more than 50 newspapers, magazines, and websites, must indicate that I'm tolerably good at it.

Over the years I have also encountered a dismaying number of folks in this business who have journalism degrees but can't write worth a damn.

Gatekeeping

Consequently, I get more than a bit in antsy when I hear advocacy - veiled or explicit - for establishing requirements for journalistic credentials before one should be permitted to pursue one's livelihood as a journalist. This sort of gatekeeping is already creeping in at the bureaucratic level. For example, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, journalists are a category that can cross the NAFTA borders to seek employment, but only if they possess a degree in journalism. That would exclude some of the biggest established names in journalism today.

So it bugs me when I hear aspersions being cast on "teenage high school student writers." There are some pretty good journalists on the Mac Web who fit into that category - Low End Mac's own Adam Robert Guha, Mac Militia's Joey Cooper, and the Mac Night Owl's Grayson Steinberg, to name a few. All of these young writers have proven themselves capable of producing material that is readable and interesting, which is more than I can say for some journalism degree holders I can think of.

Control

What is the real rationale for setting up barriers to entry into the journalistic game?

I can think of two: prestige and money.

If pursuit of professional journalism could somehow be restricted to people who possess journalism degrees, and perhaps membership in a professional society as well, the cachet associated with calling oneself a journalist would rise several notches - at least theoretically.

And if it were possible to keep all those pesky amateurs from producing prose for formal publication, often for small or no remuneration, the laws of supply and demand would seem to indicate that the incomes of credentialed journalists would rise.

However, I don't think either will happen. At least I hope not - and the Internet is one of the reasons why I doubt that it will. The Internet is a great democratizer, and it is shaking up and threatening all sorts of established hegemonies and professional cartels.

An extremely high-profile example of this is the phenomenon of music file sharing. The music business cartel has discovered that it no longer enjoys stranglehold control over the popular distribution of music. And, of course, like any established interests whose dominance is being threatened, big music is fighting back - and in ways that have potential to diminish the utility and enjoyment of information technology in ways that have nothing to do with music piracy. However, I think that these reactionary forces will lose in the long run, and that the entire concept of intellectual property will change dramatically.

Another category that is being revolutionized by the Internet is the heretofore tight control that the conventional medical establishment has had over the dissemination of medical and clinical information. More and more health care consumers are getting help and information over the Internet and becoming less likely to accept the opinion of their local MD unquestioningly. There is backlash here, too, with caveats being thrown out that getting medical advice on the Internet is dangerous. And so it could be if one fails to use discretion and common sense, but with institutions like the Mayo Clinic posting information on the Web, there's plenty of solid medical advice available as well.

Another aspect of this is that the allopathic medical model no longer has a junkie dealer franchise on clinical expertise. All manner of alternative and complementary medical disciplines have found the Internet to be a excellent conduit for articulating their perspectives on health and healing to a wide market, and this delights me as much as is scares some vested interests. I have been struggling for many years with a number of chronic and debilitating health problems, and I have found more helpful and effective information and advice on and through the Internet over the past four years than I derived through the conventional health care system over the two decades prior to that.

The cool thing is that in the Internet age anyone with a computer, some free software, and an Internet account can own their very own "press" and address a vast potential audience, making press freedom truly democratic for the first time in history.

And so it is with journalism. There's an old saying: "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one." The cool thing is that in the Internet age anyone with a computer, some free software, and an Internet account can own their very own "press" and address a vast potential audience, making press freedom truly democratic for the first time in history. Of course, that doesn't guarantee that these newly emancipated publishers will produce anything worth reading, but the marketplace should arbitrate their success or failure, not would-be "professional" gatekeepers.

Of course, one must temper one's skepticism about credentialed expertise with common sense. Do-it-yourself brain surgery is not on, and the man who represents himself in court in most cases probably does have a fool for a client, but there are many, many other areas where abdication of personal judgment borders on the pathetic.

The Consensus of the Competent

About 25 years ago, the late historian Christopher Lasch wrote:

The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies. . .

Recent studies of professionalization show that professionalism did not emerge, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in response to a clearly defined social need. Instead, the new professions themselves invented many of the needs they claim to satisfy. They played on public fears of disorder and disease, adopted a deliberately mystifying jargon, ridiculed popular traditions of self-help as backward and unscientific, and in this way created or intensified (not without opposition) a demand for their own services. . . .

The new paternalism has replaced personal dependence not with bureaucratic rationality, but with a new form of bureaucratic dependence. What appears to social scientists as a seamless web of "independence" represents in fact dependence of the individual on the organization, the citizen on the state, the worker on the manager, and the parent on the "helping professions." The consensus of the competent . . . came only by rendering the layman to incompetence.

The "claim that professionalism is based on demonstrated intellectual merit alone" does not appreciate how easily "intellectual merit" can be confused with the mere acquisition a professional credentials or, worse, with loyalty to an unspoken ideological consensus - how easily the indispensable ideal of professional disinterestedness can be warped and distorted by the social and political context in which it has grown up.

Freedom

The Internet is a powerful, democratic foil against that "consensus of the competent" - the cult of expertism - and a means of restoring a measure of the self-help, self-sufficiency ethic that prevailed before the doctrine of professionalization and expertise was imposed at the behest of vested interests.

I love freedom: free-speech, free expression, free press, free marketplace of ideas. And that's what the Internet can and should be. Freedom, of course, always comes at a price, and the price of freedom on the Internet will always mean the necessity of tolerating the dissemination of bad, stupid, or even highly offensive ideas, but I'm much more comfortable with that than with gatekeepers arbitrarily deciding what will or will not be heard - a motif that carried to its logical conclusion ends up with the Taliban.

Let the free marketplace work. Let people exercise their common sense and take responsibility for which ideas and methodologies they will accept or reject, and which they will apply in their own lives.

And let's deal the professional gatekeepers and credential elitists out of the equation.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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