Criticism vs. Petty Coercion

August 3, 2011

Wired (ht Jason Morehead) recently ran a short editorial about the geometric rate at which our ability to comment on products and experiences is increasing. Wired is an odd place to find such an editorial, as it has become notorious for product placement and a comment section that can degenerate pretty quickly. But there are elements of truth to the idea that our daily experiences are increasingly subject to micromanagement by endless data sets of prior review. Our tendency to check out reviews of restaurants online, for example, strips us of the magic of discovery. Rather than looking or finding, we simply show up somewhere that we have been told approximates our tastes.

As the editorial states:

“Our ever more sophisticated arsenal of stars and thumbs will eventually serve to curtail serendipity, adventure, and idiotic floundering. But more immediate is the simple problem of contamination. When the voices of hundreds of strangers, or even just three shrill ones, enter our heads, a tiny but vital part of ourselves is diminished. Suddenly we’re breached, denied the pleasure of articulating our own judgment on this professor, or that meal, or this city. It’s a fundamental bit of humanness to discover, say, the Velvet Underground for the first time—to rifle through that box of records at 13 and to reach an unbiased and wholly personal verdict on those strange sounds. Is it pretty? Ugly? Why are they out of tune?

There’s an essential freedom in being alone with one’s thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else’s. Diminish that aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective. Do I really think Blue Bottle coffee is that great? Or Blazing Saddles that funny? Do I really not like that pizza place because it isn’t authentic New York-style? Sure, it’s entirely possible to arrive at one’s own opinion amidst a cacophony of others. But it’s also possible to bend, unknowingly and imperceptibly, toward a position not naturally our own.”

Yet I am hesitant to push this as far as the author. The reality is that all forms of review pose a sort of gamble. On the one hand, we may be spared from mediocrity. On the other, the reviewer may be either incorrect or out of line with our tastes. The fact that anyone can comment on anything these days only raises the stakes of this gamble, as we are subject to a system of review that has no other critical principle but sheer mass. This is akin what Marilynne Robinson referred to as the “tyranny of petty coercion.”

I don’t think our response to this should be to disconnect from the process of criticism and rely on the unpredictable chronology of our own experiences to dictate what is good and what is not. Instead, we need to learn how to distinguish between “petty coercion” and informed judgment. We need to become sensitive to the difference between marketing and commentary. We need to pack our rss feeds with fellow wayfarers, especially those that appear to have travelled a bit more broadly than ourselves. The reality is that good review, good criticism, saves us from the Dunning-Kruger Effect . Simply stated, this is the idea that “We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.”

I can’t believe I am going to end on a Pixar note, but Anton Ego said it well:

“…there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends.”