Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

The Death of the Specialist, Part 1

A common debate is raging across the web. It is a debate about credentials and who is allowed to provide and distribute information. Should bloggers be considered journalists? Is wikipedia a trustworthy source of information? For that matter it is a question of who should tell us about our wars, the Pentagon or our soldiers? This debate is also about who can provide what services. Can a loosely-knit group of programmers provide software of equal quality to large corporations? And can independent artists and filmmakers and musicians gain the popularity of the mainstream entertainment? This is largely a debate about expertise and it won’t likely be settled by a debate at all but by the rules of an emerging medium. In “Understanding Media” Marshall McLuhan points to the creation of the medium of the written word, the phonetic alphabet, as having two major effects on civilization. It allowed for individual freedom of thought, the separation of the mind from the tribal mind, and it gave Western society its intuitive sense of cause and effect. Through these two effects, literacy in Western civilization allowed for the creation of the specialist, the expert.

However in his 1964 book (prior to the mainstream spread of the Internet) he could not have been more prescient when he wrote, “there is a new electric technology of literacy built on the phonetic alphabet. Because of its action in extending our central nervous system, electric technology seems to favor the inclusive and participatorial spoken word over the specialist written word.” This observation was somewhat premature. Although McLuhan discusses the extension of the tactile sense in his work he didn’t foresee our direct manipulation of information in the public forum of the Internet. I have argued before that interactivity can be considered the extension of the tactile sense into media. With this extension, the broadcast linear model of media is changing into a nonlinear exchange and it is this participatorial exchange that is challenging the role of the specialist. If the information is “out there” then specialist lose their monopoly on it and with their monopoly on information goes a great deal of their credibility.

The linear broadcast model lead to a fevered pitch of expert soundbytes sorely lacking in real debate or deep discussion. As Steven Johnson pointed out in his eloquent work “Emergence” the broadcast model originally based on a top-down specialist system of a hierarchy of editors and journalists began to undergo systemic changes when CNN arrived on the scene and made all of its news feeds available to local affiliates. Suddenly what had previously been a command control economy of information became a cacophony of stories dictated by ratings and not by news editors. This was the first step toward a more participatorial media and the first attack on the bastion of experts at the network news operations. Johnson also pointed out that this systemic change created a system based solely on positive feedback. To use his analogy a system based only on positive feedback is like an electric guitar leaning on an amplifier.

However, this attack on the specialist had little more effect than removing editorial control. The systemic change had not yet harmed the credibility of the news organization. Their credibility would come under scrutiny only with the development of a negative feedback system, a balance, as it were, and this balance (at least in part) has turned out to be the blog community. A single blog taken on its own is no threat to anyone’s credibility, but blogs, seen as a system for evaluation, do potentially represent a shift in credibility. The media can show a spectrum of opinions if it likes but it has very little capacity to synthesize information and let the most important facts bubble to the surface the way the blogosphere can because while the mainstream media may appear large there are actually fewer reporters in the field than there used to be.

While the expert may still yet reign in highly specialized fields like Physics, news and opinion and the deluge of information they represent are better processed by a group mind. For that matter, so is entertainment.

[coming soon in Part 2: The Entertainment inustry and Information as an Asymptote ]

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