Monday, September 18, 2023

Pathfinders: Earth Version Two (2007)

The Pathfinders Column from the September 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Earth Version Two 

Possibly the deepest fault-line in the territory of that large and disparate body of people describing or thinking of themselves as ‘socialist’ concerns the question whether people are either smart enough to organise their own revolution or dumb enough to have to be led to it. On one side we have the ‘vanguardists’, a motley collection of would-be leaders convinced, mostly on the basis of historical arguments relating to under-educated rural peasants, that the vast majority of the world’s people have always needed and will always need to be told what to do. Thus, many left-wing organisations feature a top-down hierarchical structure, entirely the same as the capitalist structures they supposedly abhor. On the other side we have another motley collection of would-be revolutionaries, sometimes called ‘libertarians’, who consider this kind of hierarchical thinking to be precisely part of the problem, and do not foresee any realistic prospect of emancipation from capitalism while this sort of oppressive mentality remains a part of the picture.

There are interesting hints that the same ambivalent attitude towards the working class is to be found among scientists too. While pundits often debate the question of what workers think of science, rarely does anyone ask what scientists think of workers. Perhaps it is supposed that the boffins are above such value-judgments, solely concerned with their test-tubes and tunnelling microscopes. But of course, scientists are human too, and it would be nothing less than astonishing if they didn’t share some of society’s prejudices. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, plainly struggles to contain his contempt for weak-minded people who believe in elves, pixies and celestial beings, having convinced himself that religion is the root of all evil despite the abundant evidence that atheists can be evil too. In a recent discussion with the eminent physicist Lawrence M Krauss, the two debate the best way to go about weening the population away from fairy stories and into the sunlit uplands of rational science (Scientific American, July 07). The ‘softly softly’ Krauss seems to persuade the firebrand Dawkins to the conclusion that the working class must be ‘seduced’ out of ignorance rather than beaten over the head with it, a conclusion one can’t imagine Dawkins ever sticking to. But what is uncomfortably apparent in their language is a mental image of the worker as an Alabama redneck with a gun in one hand, a crucifix in the other, and who has only ever read two books, both of them about UFO’s.

Of course, it may be true, as Sam Goldwyn used to say, that nobody ever went broke underestimating the public intelligence, and the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism and anti-evolution in America will certainly lend weight to that particular prejudice. But the last time ‘Intelligent Design’ (creationism) was in the news, it was being publicly humiliated in Pennsylvania as working class parents, some of them Christians, took the battle for rationality to court and forced the entire Dover School board of governors, who advocated teaching creationism in class, to resign in ignominy.

In the past, the views of individual scientists about the mental or intellectual capabilities of workers was a matter merely of private discussion. Now, however, the question has begun to erupt into the foreground, and all because of ‘Web 2.0’.

The World Wide Web is changing fast, and whether we like it or not, it has become interactive. More and more, on every hard news or information site, we are seeing invitations to readers to send in their pictures, their articles, reportage or opinions. This is not simply a crafty way to pad out pages at no expense, it is what is called ‘user-generated content’, the new fully interactive Web – Version Two Point Nought – where every consumer is potentially a producer. And the implications are beginning to expose a fault-line in society which exactly mirrors that found among radical political groups. For some, the ‘democratisation’ of the means of communication marks a thrilling phase-change in the pace of human progress. For others, it is the start of a catastrophic dumbing-down which threatens to drown civilisation in a welter of mediocrity.

Leading the charge against what he sees as a colonisation of genuine expertise by an invasion of insipid, inaccurate and second-rate vanity publishing is the Californian entrepreneur Andrew Keen, who argues in his controversial book The Cult of the Amateur that “what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment” (quoted in New York Times, June 29). And why might this be? Because the crowd is now in charge, and “history has proven that the crowd is not often very wise, embracing unwise ideas like slavery, infanticide, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Britney Spears.” This is a curious argument, considering that the same crowd subsequently abolished slavery and infanticide, and will very likely do the same to the war in Iraq and even, with a bit of luck, Britney Spears. Keen is obviously not keen on the politics of Web 2.0, likening it to Marxism or a ‘communist utopia’: “It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone—even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us—can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves.” This last quotation comes from his entry in Wikipedia, a user-generated phenomenon which Keen has stated he despises, because anyone can write anything they like in it without being a tenured professor, on the basis that the crowd holds more collective wisdom than the individual. To Keen, this is tantamount to pulling down the Library of Congress and replacing it with the Tower of Babel.

Keen and others have made much of Wikipedia’s potential for inaccuracy, while absurdly ignoring the fact that Wikipedia is dynamically self-correcting. One may as justly accuse science of getting things wrong sometimes. Indeed, comparison of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica articles on science by the magazine Nature revealed a roughly equal number of errors in both (BBC Online, March 24, 06).

Ridiculed by the ‘digerati’ as a mastodon railing against the warming winds of change, Keen is certainly a minority voice, although probably the vocal end of a significantly large silent rearguard. Whereas elitist notions of worker stupidity tend to predominate in left-wing circles, they are definitely infra dig among the online community. And to give credit to Keen, he is honest enough to admit that he may have overstated his case: “I think I idealised mainstream media … I concentrated on the good things. I didn’t write about the Sun newspaper. I didn’t write about Fox” (Guardian, July 20). No, he didn’t. And he didn’t consider the fact either that his historical crowds, wherever they acted stupidly, undoubtedly did so because the ruling elites kept knowledge to themselves in order to maintain their power and prestige. If the advent of Web 2.0 forces this kind of prejudice into the foreground, so much the better. Keen, if he gets lonely, could always go and join the mastodons of the left-wing. Socialists however will feel more at home among the trail-blazing digerati of the interactive revolution. Roll on Earth 2.0.
Paddy Shannon

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