Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Armchair Critics in the Age of Wikipedia

The development of technology into the coverage of cricket is somewhat of a mixed blessing. On the positive side, improvements in technology have allowed spectators to feel closer to the action than ever before. Undoubtably, this has had the effect of vastly improving the viewing experience to such an extent that watching the coverage on television is superior in many ways to watching the action live. More negatively, however, the technological advancements that have improved the viewing experience have also endowed viewers with the self-belief that they are both entitled and qualified to make criticisms of what is happening on the pitch, whether it relates to a fielding change made by a captain, or an LBW decision made by the umpire. With the benefit of replays, slowing down the footage and innovations such as Hot Spot and Hawkeye, a generation of previously ignorant boofheads have become supposedly enlightened experts. Perhaps the most notable example of this was in the Second Test between India and Australia at the SCG where West Indian umpire Steve Bucknor was later hauled over the coals and then decommissioned for the next two Tests for what were essentially two bad decisions in the course of an otherwise reasonable game. In the excitement of the mob lynching, it was forgotten that what the public were able to see repeated ad nauseum, slowed down to one frame at a time with the assistance of technology had to be assessed by Bucknor in a fraction of a section, with the naked eye, in the pressure of the moment. In many ways, Bucknor was on a hiding to nothing. This is the age of instant information in which we live.

Armchair criticism may be one thing when it comes to discussing the cricket over a barbecque, but it takes on a sinister new dimension when it comes to discussing more substantive issues of public policy. With the help of Wikipedia, knowledge that was obtained by specialists over a lifetime of study is accessed by the "lay expert" in a matter of seconds. The lay expect, then believing that "they have done their research", feels sufficiently qualified to enter debate in areas where they previously had no grounding. Indeed, I'd argue that they are entering into a debate where they still lack sufficient grounding to make informed comment about the issues that they are seeking to discuss. For instance, as someone who is now recognised formally as a lawyer, it never ceases to annoy me when the media and the public at large make certain criticisms of the legal system, especially with respect to sentencing principles. Indeed, the principles of sentencing are such a complex and indefinite art that they are left to judges and not to your rank-and-file lawyer, and only then with reference to sentencing in comparable cases.

My argument may seem a little elistist, so let me explain where I am coming from. As a lawyer who has studied for near on seven years to become admitted as a solicitor, I think I am sufficiently qualified to make at least broad statements about the law and the legal system in Australia. To some extent, I am qualified because throughout my study I have had to digest and process a massive amount of information. But information alone does not make a lawyer. This information must be assessed within the context of a number a factors, including the history of the law, jurisprudence more generally and the way in which this information works out in practice. In short, not only do I need to have information in the first place, but I also need to know what to do with that information and how to sort the wheat from chaff, the cream from the crap, as it were. During my studies, specific focus was placed on being able to critically analyse the information we read. At the same time, however, these specifically legal skills do not perfectly translate into other areas of expertise. They are useless, for example, for the purpose of assessing the relative merits of arguments made in a scientific journal because I lack the basic grounding that professional scientists possess. While I try to educate myself about issues such as the environment, the arts, science and the economy, I know all too well that if I were to presume I had any great knowledge about these areas, as opposed to information, I would be deluding myself. As such I am very reluctant to comment upon such issues and much more eager to listen to those who know what they are talking about.

As a society we live in an age we have much more access to information than ever before, but are fundamentally ill-equipped to adequately deal with this epistemological onslaught. Furthermore, greater access to information invariably tends to mean that we will also have greater access to marginal views. Sometimes these views become marginal because of the marginalised position of those who hold them, but sometimes views are marginal because they have been largely discredited by specialists working within a particular field. Especially when one is ill-equipped to deal with specialised information, knowing when marginal views are marginal for a very good reason is often difficult to assess. The unfairly maligned and marginalised position is often indiscernable for the absurd position that is sustained primarily through rhetorical force. Without the tools to effectively assess which is which, the absurd position can look much stronger than it really is. Human prejudices being what they are, this often means that people mistake the position that they would like to believe is true for the strongest position.

As negative as this essay sounds, I am glad that I live in a society and in an age where information and debate is relatively free. A society that is more enlightened about the issues that intimately impact upon their lives will inevitably be more democratic. At the same time, we need to be more discerning about what we read and realise that not all that glitters is gold. But more importantly, we need to be more discerning about our own judgment, especially in areas where we have no real specialist knowledge. We are less saavy and objective than we may think, more prone to swallow rhetoric than we may wish to acknowledge. Simply because we have accumulated information doesn't mean that we have knowledge, and it certainly doesn't mean that we have wisdom.

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