Rate This Article: What’s Wrong with the Culture of Critique

[div class=attrib]From Wired:[end-div]

You don’t have to read this essay to know whether you’ll like it. Just go online and assess how provocative it is by the number of comments at the bottom of the web version. (If you’re already reading the web version, done and done.) To find out whether it has gone viral, check how many people have hit the little thumbs-up, or tweeted about it, or liked it on Facebook, or dug it on Digg. These increasingly ubiquitous mechanisms of assessment have some real advantages: In this case, you could save 10 minutes’ reading time. Unfortunately, life is also getting a little ruined in the process.

A funny thing has quietly accompanied our era’s eye-gouging proliferation of information, and by funny I mean not very funny. For every ocean of new data we generate each hour—videos, blog posts, VRBO listings, MP3s, ebooks, tweets—an attendant ocean’s worth of reviewage follows. The Internet-begotten abundance of absolutely everything has given rise to a parallel universe of stars, rankings, most-recommended lists, and other valuations designed to help us sort the wheat from all the chaff we’re drowning in. I’ve never been to Massimo’s pizzeria in Princeton, New Jersey, but thanks to the Yelpers I can already describe the personality of Big Vince, a man I’ve never met. (And why would I want to? He’s surly and drums his fingers while you order, apparently.) Everything exists to be charted and evaluated, and the charts and evaluations themselves grow more baroque by the day. Was this review helpful to you? We even review our reviews.

Technoculture critic and former Wired contributor Erik Davis is concerned about the proliferation of reviews, too. “Our culture is afflicted with knowingness,” he says. “We exalt in being able to know as much as possible. And that’s great on many levels. But we’re forgetting the pleasures of not knowing. I’m no Luddite, but we’ve started replacing actual experience with someone else’s already digested knowledge.”

Of course, Yelpification of the universe is so thorough as to be invisible. I scarcely blinked the other day when, after a Skype chat with my mother, I was asked to rate the call. (I assumed they were talking about connection quality, but if they want to hear about how Mom still pronounces it noo-cu-lar, I’m happy to share.) That same afternoon, the UPS guy delivered a guitar stand I’d ordered. Even before I could weigh in on the product, or on the seller’s expeditiousness, I was presented with a third assessment opportunity. It was emblazoned on the cardboard box: “Rate this packaging.”

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