Sterling Newberry, blogger politico-econ-philosophistic head par-excellence and one of the most prodigious writers I've ever observed, has posted an essay on BOPnews attacking contepmorary pop-philosophy for being sophistic. He assails what be calls the "bottom-up epistimology" of the moment thusly:
- People make their best decisions from spontaneous snap judgements (Blink)
- The mass consensus is more right than any group of "experts" (The Wisdom of Crowds)
- When the Blink of Consensus shifts, change occurs (The Tipping Point)
I'm not sure whether Sterling is attempting to read the zeitgeist or criticize the authors here. If it's the former, he's got a point insofar as he's picking up on the latest iteration of market fundimendalism. However, if it's the latter, I think he's beating up a straw-man and missing a critical opportunity to boot.
Let me come out of the closet as someone who sees bottom-up epitsimology as a useful tool, if not quite exactly what I entirely believe. I took some epistimology courses in college because I wanted to see what it was all about, but in the end I really couldn''t get into it. At NYU, the question of "how we know what we know" seemed to often reduce to kind of innane debates over whether reality is really real. Maybe it was what the kids were into -- that was when The Matrix first dropped -- but it bored me. If there is no reality, then there's no point (that I can see) in living, and since I like living, I just take for granted that I'm not a brain in a vat or something. It lets one move on to much more substantial and meaningful questions.
My own epistemic philosphy is one of experience, best outlined in this performance text. Basically I think reality exists -- the laws of physics are real for all intents and purposes, and there's a bunch of energy and matter lying around -- but that human beings all have their own set of beliefs, knowledge, fantasy, etc. The perception of objective reality through the lens of these beliefs is experience, which is all that any of us will ever know. The central question of "how we know what we know" becomes then not about reality (which is largely out of our control) but about belief, about fantasy, which is the real variable in determining our experience.
My own creed is directly informed by my training and inclination as an artist. Beliefs can come from many places, but almost all fall under the bracket of "things we learned from previous experience."1 Art serves an important social purpose in creating novel experience that can impart values one wouldn't normally encounter (or encounter directly) in everyday life. I believe it is the responsibility of the artist to safeguard, maintain, and improve the beliefs , knowledge and fantasies of his/her fellow humans.
Artists are not alone in this role. The somewhat anachronistic craft of "Letters" -- ala "Arts and Letters" -- serves a similar purpose, as does the social institution of the Press, aenemic as the both of them are these days. This is where I see the phenomena of self-publishing fitting in, natch, but that's another essay for another time.
Getting back to the virtue of bottom-up epistemology, contemporary society suffers from an institutionally-supported paucity of ideas about how to be, how to live. At present, the top-down epistimology at work in most places is blandly consumeristic. Our fantasies rendered flaccid, banal, prosaic to better serve to logic of mass production and hence mass marketing. It is my belief that the "power corrupts" maxim applies to the brokerage of belief, that when the means of influencing ideas are centralized and closely held, a power-eliete develops who manipulate said means to maintain a beneficial order for themselves. As such, a diverse and competitive ecology for fantasy -- something that's lacking in 21st Century America -- is a benefit to society and critical component of liberty.
Now, Sterling knocks these pop-prostelatizers of bottom-up epistimology for much the same thing: justifying and/or extolling mundane consumer choice as an arbiter of virtue. Perhaps the missing link is The Wisdom of Crowds, which I haven't read, but my initial reaction to his critique is that at the very least he's misred Gladwell.
The Tipping Point isn't a work of philosphy. It's a book about marketing, about how people set about intentionally convincing strangers of things. It doesn't address whether epedemics of consumer choices are good or bad, just how they happen, and therefore how you can help them to come about if you're into that sort of thing. It's a how-to manuel for anyone who's got ideas which he or she would like to see more widely considered but doesn't have the resources to mount a major PR campaign. As such, I like it quite a lot.
Blink on the other hand, is about how snap decisions are made, mostly with ragards to pre-conscious pattern recognition. Again, it doesn't address the virtue of said decisions. In fact, in an excerpt I previously linked to, he talks specifically about how "thinking without thinking" can lead us astray. A nimble mind can immediately connect the omni-presence of advertising as an attempt to influence pre-conscious decisions. Maybe I make this leap because I already know this is how advertising works, but it seems like a pretty obvious connection to make if you're going to criticise the book for propping up the consumer state.
Questions of interperetation aside, Sterling errors, I think, in ascribing any motive to Gladwell in speaking to the virtue of either of these phenomena. He's an enthusiast for novel and under-appreciated modes of thought, but nowhere does he say anyhing along the lines of "this is the way it is, and it is good." In ascribing motives to the authors which don't exist -- that they're attempting to blueprint an order for society, or set forth where "the truth" is -- Sterling misses the actual value of the current pop-intellectual interest in bottom-up epistemology: it's full of great ideas for how to go about changing things cheaply and effectively.
In that sense, all the better if the current top dawgs see it as a sophistic confirmation of their market fundimentalism. To make an overblown analogy, it would be rather like business leaders in 19th-Century Europe taking The Communist Mannifesto as a comfort. Clearly the pop-lit on bottom-up change falls several orders of magnitude short of Marx, but wouldn't it be a hoot if the market's much-vaunted knack for assimilating critique where turned on its head for a change?
A savvy understanding of these books points to the impending eclipse of slow-moving institutions (a.k.a. large publicly-traded corporate congolomerations) as dominant forces in dictating the popular consensus. Once that cat is out of the bag -- when un-assimilated but intelligent people start realizing how pattern-recognition works and how social ideas spread -- the democratization of meme-making will be difficult if not impossible for the current Masters of the Universe to contain. I know those of us in the inner circle are sick of talking about memes and shit, but this stuff is about to hit the Midwest in a big way, and that'll be all she wrote.
It's worth putitng out there as an addendum that I'm not some kind of bottom-up fanatic. There's value in top-down epistemology in setting protocols (c.f. the code of laws), and there's value in institutions as shelters and training grounds. Ideally we'll get a world in which open, transparent, democratically-managed institutions form a core infrastructure for a society which is comprised of communities, networks and enterprising individuals. At the moment, though, we have a lot of dead weight. When institutions broker a vast portion of the societies belief, and these institutions are failing, in Sterling's words, to effectively represent a "rational system" -- one which obtains "objective results" and can effectively "credential" individuals to perform positive roles within a normatively-guided system -- the time is ripe for renewal, reform, even revolution.
1 Note the iterative nature of this construction: experience is a product of belief, which is itself a product of experience. This totally begs all kinds of questions about early childhood development. But that's really tough territory, so I tend to leave it to the professionsals.