Crisis of authority
It is apparently not enough for proprietors of newspapers and magazines and publishing houses to jettison their editors to cut expenses. No, in addition, we are subjected to scorn: We have obsolete “gatekeeper” roles in the new realm of information that wants to be free; our editing procedures are quaint echoes of 19th-century industrial processes. Every time an editor is let go, Jeff Jarvis* sheds another crocodile tear.
The very idea of authority is being challenged, and what the Testy Copy Editors have been calling “the war on editing” is merely one battle.
Wikipedia’s defenders insist that it doesn’t really matter that the online collaborative encyclopedia contains an unknown quantity of suspect information, some of it merely mistaken or outdated, but some of it outright fraudulent. Doesn’t matter that it may not be right. Wikipedia is swell.
Those publishing proprietors mentioned above think it doesn’t matter all that much if the accuracy of their publications has suffered and the quality has been compromised. Readers will put up with anything.
Bloggers and Internet sites post rumors, unconfirmed or unattributed statements of fact, and outright lies — we saw during the campaign that any kind of vicious nonsense about Sarah Palin or Barack Obama, provably false statements and fantasies, multiplied like the hydra, growing new appendages as fast as the old ones could be lopped off. Doesn’t matter. You can say anything. It’s all OK.
We saw a crisis of authority in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, combined with widespread disenchantment over the conduct of the Vietnam War and the exposure of the governmental falsehoods connected with it, led to skeptical rejection of the authority of the white male Establishment in business, government, academia and the church. We’ve been down this road before.
But there was an earlier and more profound crisis of authority that should resonate today: the challenge to church and state and established order associated with the rise of printing technology in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Once the monopoly on information held by church and state was broken, anyone could say anything. And say it anonymously or pseudonymously. It was a free-for-all like the Internet: political subversion, religious controversy, all conducted with vicious personal attacks on one’s opponents. No copyright — anyone could steal anything. Anyone could invent anything.
It took a long time for print publication to become even partially domesticated. No doubt the Internet will also undergo some domestication over time, but it is difficult to be optimistic about that.
For now, to shift metaphor, we are living in the Wild West. There are gunslingers walking the streets at will, and the honest citizens can’t tell when they might find themselves in a crossfire. No doubt it’s exciting to be a gunslinger, an exuberant freedom, but the ordinary citizenry is eventually going to want a little more order.
This is where the metaphor starts to trouble me, because I don’t want the state to be laying a heavy hand on the Internet. I don’t have a badge and don’t want one. But I don’t see that self-policing is effective. And the I-don’t-care-whether-it’s-right-or-not attitude seems in particular to be a substantial obstacle to establishment of authority to which the public can give willing assent.
* Look him up yourself. I’m disinclined to send traffic his way.