Tag Archives: criticism

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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Commonplaces of technology critique

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

What is it good for? A passing fad! It makes you stupid! Today’s technology critique is tomorrow’s embarrassing error of judgement, as Katrin Passig shows. Her suggestion: one should try to avoid repeating the most commonplace critiques, particularly in public.

In a 1969 study on colour designations in different cultures, anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Kay described how the sequence of levels of observed progression was always the same. Cultures with only two colour concepts distinguish between “light” and “dark” shades. If the culture recognizes three colours, the third will be red. If the language differentiates further, first come green and/or yellow, then blue. All languages with six colour designations distinguish between black, white, red, green, blue and yellow. The next level is brown, then, in varying sequences, orange, pink, purple and/or grey, with light blue appearing last of all.

The reaction to technical innovations, both in the media and in our private lives, follows similarly preconceived paths. The first, entirely knee-jerk dismissal is the “What the hell is it good for?” (Argument No.1) with which IBM engineer Robert Lloyd greeted the microprocessor in 1968. Even practices and techniques that only constitute a variation on the familiar – the electric typewriter as successor to the mechanical version, for instance – are met with distaste in the cultural criticism sector. Inventions like the telephone or the Internet, which open up a whole new world, have it even tougher. If cultural critics had existed at the dawn of life itself, they would have written grumpily in their magazines: “Life – what is it good for? Things were just fine before.”

Because the new throws into confusion processes that people have got used to, it is often perceived not only as useless but as a downright nuisance. The student Friedrich August Köhler wrote in 1790 after a journey on foot from Tübingen to Ulm: “[Signposts] had been put up everywhere following an edict of the local prince, but their existence proved short-lived, since they tended to be destroyed by a boisterous rabble in most places. This was most often the case in areas where the country folk live scattered about on farms, and when going on business to the next city or village more often than not come home inebriated and, knowing the way as they do, consider signposts unnecessary.”

The Parisians seem to have greeted the introduction of street lighting in 1667 under Louis XIV with a similar lack of enthusiasm. Dietmar Kammerer conjectured in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the regular destruction of these street lamps represented a protest on the part of the citizens against the loss of their private sphere, since it seemed clear to them that here was “a measure introduced by the king to bring the streets under his control”. A simpler explanation would be that citizens tend in the main to react aggressively to unsupervised innovations in their midst. Recently, Deutsche Bahn explained that the initial vandalism of their “bikes for hire” had died down, now that locals had “grown accustomed to the sight of the bicycles”.

When it turns out that the novelty is not as useless as initially assumed, there follows the brief interregnum of Argument No.2: “Who wants it anyway?” “That’s an amazing invention,” gushed US President Rutherford B. Hayes of the telephone, “but who would ever want to use one of them?” And the film studio boss Harry M. Warner is quoted as asking in 1927, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”.

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