Sunday, 27 April 2014

Popularity IS Authority

I seem to have developed the need to talk about professionals. Today I’ll have to give in to the temptation once again, hoping that this odd attraction will let me be once I’ve left it in the open.

To put it bluntly (the way critics put it every time, with that grin on their faces), everyone’s a specialist these days. Their words matter, their opinions are posted and pasted everywhere, they get cult-like followings, they shine in their own resplendent light. In other words, the ‘new professionals’ show serious signs of having become authoritative. And with this statement – on we go.

Between the good and the many

You know how the argument goes: in order to be an authority in a given field, you need to have what they call substance. In other words, you need to have something to say that is worthy of other people’s attention. But here’s exactly where things get really blurry. Because I Can Has Cheezburger, with their lolcats and things, are gathering more attention than a hardwired Harvard professor of Astrophysics. And man, what a difference I can see between a cat and a star!

Source: DeviantART
“But don’t forget: the really good ones are often hidden away from the eyes of simple mortals,” the devil’s advocate is yelling into my ear.

What I understand from this is that a person of authority must be a person of distinction. But, alas, distinction is all about singularity; and a singular thing is any of the following: outstanding, outrageous, irreverent, odd, bizarre, out-of-the-way, atypical, abnormal. In other words, the odder a person, the higher their chances of acquiring distinction, since the likelier it is for them to have no match. What we call authorities, then, are the oddest people we can think of. So odd, we can’t possibly identify with them, because (remember?) they have no match. And that puts an end (for me) to the old habit of voting for a person endowed with the thing formerly known as authority, since authority is dubious without masses to acknowledge it. According to the argument outlined above, once you have a mass of followers you are no longer odd. Whether you like it or not, you’re no longer special; you’re more like a slice of pizza shared between friends: yummy but enduring too many bites to remain good for long.

Authority equals popularity

Professionals who defend the tenets of their own profession on grounds of authority tend to easily forget a simple historical aspect: that their own profession was, at some point in time, regarded as substandard, ridiculous, bizarre practice. In the seventeenth century, those we nowadays call scientists were ridiculed as stargazers, useless blokes given to the debauchery of pseudo-intellectual practices. And to some extent they were. But look where science has gotten: to the point where almost everything it produces is regarded as a set of ultimate truths; to the point where being a scientist is the highest mark of one’s intellectual prowess; to the point where calling yourself a scientist is like placing the lid onto all debates, once and for good.

Source: Nicholas Lundgaard
And science is not all. Let’s give a thought to the literary genre most highly regarded since mid-nineteenth century: the novel. At its origins (whether we’re talking about the Greek prehistory or the eighteenth-century revival), the novel was looked at as a cheap pastime suitable for the “small minds” (as they were thought to be) of the rising middle class.

So here’s the point: most of the things we’re enjoying now have started on a wrong footing. They took off only when a critical mass of followers was finally gathered. In other words, they had a chance at becoming what they are only when they started rising in popularity. To cut it to the core: authority equals popularity, no matter how we turn the issue around.

Let's not fear the popular

Then what upsets me sometimes is this thing: the habit of completely ignoring the role of popularity in the appreciation of authority. As if popularity were an evil we needed to keep at a distance for fear of contamination. But popularity is not an alien thing. It has not been bestowed upon humanity by an evil-doing Martian race. It is the way we exist: through interaction, through the sharing of common understandings of things, through contagion. The history of human ideas is a history written using the terms of epidemiology. It takes into account not how many ideas have existed across centuries, but how many of those ideas have become significant; popular, that is; or even better – authoritative. Think religions, and we’re done.

But at the end of the day popularity is a very hazardous thing, which depends on the whims of so many factors... Which is not a proof that popularity is bad. On the contrary, it shows that authority is fragile. It only takes the next popular thing to put it out, like a cigarette butt that hasn’t even had the chance to burn to the end.