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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Revenge of the Straw Man Argument: Jarvis Unhinged

Jeff Jarvis, apparently writing a book called What Would Google Do?, must have Michel Foucault spinning delightedly in his grave, as he has just discovered post-modernity! Jarvis asserts that "the Internet" is what "... opens up creativity past one-size-fits-all mass measurements and priestly definitions."

I understand that as a journalism professor whose job apparently hinges on the lucrative current trade in old-media-bashing, Jarvis sort of has to say this stuff. "Curmudgeons" don't get invited to a lot of parties. And I gather that Jarvis is the sort who likes to be invited to a lot of (new economy style) parties, else he'd just hang onto his tenure and sleepwalk his way through the ivy-encrusted halls.

But like other champions of emerging media, is he laying it on just a tad thick?

Jarvis claims that "Internet curmudgeons argue that Google et al are bringing society to ruin precisely because they rob the creative class of its financial support and exclusivity: its pedestal." Ah yes, the pedestal thing. Why hire trained, overpriced architects to build that new museum or skyscraper? Let's crowdsource it. It'll be cheaper, more efficient, and most of all, exhilaratingly non-pedestal-ish! The only downside: if you hate it, you have no one to point the finger at.

Got yourself a legal problem? Just bring your laptop into the courtroom with you, and plug in an app that will let a global group of legal enthusiasts construct your next argument. Bye, bye, legal profession! Goodbye to all the professions! And while we're at it, let's eliminate professionalism, period! (Hmm, am I sounding curmudgeonly?)

But get serious for a second. The creative class? There is a whole slew of curmudgeons sitting around defending ... who again? Show me one of these curmudgeons. And what creative class? Is Jarvis referring to Richard Florida's creative class, from Rise of the Creative Class et al.? This is merely a broad-based statistical group making up upwards of 30-40% of workers -- so hardly a group that Florida lauds as an enlightened few. That Creative Class tends to flock to mega-regions, tolerant and fun places, etc. Nearly all of Florida's work, including his recent Who's Your City?, is important enough for anyone to read. Jarvis hasn't bothered, even though he punts the concept around for sport.

Stunningly, at the end of his post, Jarvis notes that he never managed to crack a Richard Florida book on the creative class, though he purports to have at least bought one. And the reason it's OK to torch imaginary arguments not really made by statistically-grounded authors like Florida? Because "books are such an echo chamber." Ha ha. Take that, books! Said the author of a new book. Deliciously decadent irony.

So if it isn't Florida that defends some kind of straw man creative class, then who does? Who's dumping on the explosion of pro-am culture *because* it robs a rightful creative class of their deserved role in society? No one? Hardly anyone, then. Some people who rip into the Huffington Post, perhaps; I'm at best dimly aware of these people because I only take occasional peeks into that particular echo chamber (blog-bashing and blog-basher-bashing, etc.).

I'll be looking forward to, um, reluctantly reading Jarvis' book... but as he is a self-described "Internet triumphalist," his book sounds like it may be a flavor of Kool-Aid that's already in oversupply.

An outdated and naive hat tip to the "link economy," our "culture of links" that is a "meritocracy" (yes, that was Google's idea in 1998, but has anything changed?) isn't helping. Jarvis goes on at some length about how the crowd can ferret out merit (yawn), but I don't think you have to be a curmudgeon to think that at some point, online voting systems and online culture can drag us into a kind of perpetual, unreflective adolescence. But more importantly, they can be gamed.

We're on the cusp of yet more progress in the use of technology to gather data and opinions, some of that used in a more tailored bid to inform and shape public policy. (A good friend of mine is putting together a citizen input platform right now -- there will be no shortage of fun developments like this.) But Internet technology aside, models of direct democracy and improved decision-making have merited serious debate in academic and political circles since the 1960's. Is there really a need for breathless, one-way evangelism in this effort? There will be plenty of hurdles, corruption, shenanigans, victims, and hiccups, and an ongoing battle with the garbage-in, garbage-out problem. Jarvis sounds like he's just encountering this debate for the first time -- from a peculiar angle that post-dates the death of Kurt Cobain and the founding of Yahoo.

To me, the sinister sides and hucksterism that can come with [Whatever it is that Jarvis plans to say Google would do] are as real as the wins. I find it galvanizing to watch society opening up, and to watch formerly inefficient industries give way to smarter models, but I hardly sit back and cheer when perfectly talented writers and producers of TV shows (to use one example) are threatened with crowd-sourcing and Reality-TV-ification, in order to drive down their pay. And hey, I think we've all learned that you can automate 75% or more of radio... that we're no longer in the spell of the Big Network Anchors... and that many of the other talent-worshiping Grand Narratives are being unwound. But then there's Howard Stern, asking for and getting a quarter of a billion dollars to be Howard Stern, also proving the opposite point.

The no-doubt-curmudgeonly counter-book to Jarvis' book might well be entitled "Beware the Tactical Uses of Internet Triumphalism." And if you're the straw man in Jarvis' sights: duck for cover!

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