Democratizing Everything Downward
I cringe when I hear about the “democratization” of anything.
This started years ago when I was working for a blowhard/Trump-like character, a nasty, dishonest, unlikeable bully as you’ll ever meet, who founded a business to promote ethics and to “democratize the practice of law.” The ironies were so rich that you had to roll your eyes when he played at being Steve Jobs and spouted aspirational cliches about transparency, honesty and access that he clearly didn’t believe in or practice in his own life.
On its surface, an anti-democratization comes off as elitist attitude. But maybe it shouldn’t. Power in the hands of the people isn’t necessarily a good thing when it provides the false sense that we can be something that we’re not or when it leads to poor decisions.
The real Steve Jobs understood that“democratizing technology” was Apple’s higher purpose. Indeed, wresting control of computing power from IBM, better known as “Big Blue,” or Big Brother to some, changed the world. Apple first revolutionized how businesses were run, and after the spread of the Internet, how we conduct our lives.
Gen’s Y &Z can’t imagine documents that require typing directly on to paper, the need to mail a letter and wait days or weeks for a response, or the inability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, instantly. For the most part, that’s all great. I love technology and can’t imagine going back to the dark days of clunky, fixed land-line phones that need to be dialed or wait to find a pay phone to check my answering machine.
However, there are strong arguments, backed by an abundance of data, describing the downsides of technology. I need not list them all here, though cell-phone addiction that sucks the life out social interactions and all but eliminates the joy of being in the moment is on the top of my list.
Equally upsetting to me is that “democratization” all too often translates to “dumbing down.”
Everyone is now (pick one or more) a designer, writer, musician, filmmaker, fashion guru, or a medical, legal or some other type of expert.
A paint-by-numbers approach and the belief that anyone can be whatever they dream of is seductive, but insidious. It’s too easy for anyone with a Mac to design a logo, write a blog, write and record a song or even prescribe their own medicine. The proliferation and availability of information, along with paint-by-numbers software makes everyone believe that they can be an expert. This, in turn, generates lots of bad work and misinformation.
Not feeling well? Type your symptoms into Google and you might reveal that the problem is inflammation – which can cause cancer!! – so you better get on a gluten-free diet and stop eating eggplant. And that’s a fact because it’s on the Internet.
Want to be a songwriter? Lay down a beat on Garage Band and you’re halfway home. Switch on your iPhone video and drone on about your favorite eye-liner and you’re an influencer. Yes, if more people could only see my videos, I’d be rich and famous.
The amount of dreck out there makes it harder for the cream to rise to the top. How is this thoughtful, insightful and overall incredibly great blog supposed to compete with all the horrible content that’s been created and posted today?
As a society, we’re dragged down by the ability to be an instant anything. Anyone with a podcast is not an expert, anyone with a blog is not a writer, anyone with a few songs on SoundCloud is not a musician. We are also conditioned to think, “the consumer is always right.” Legendary adman David Ogilvy said (forgive his 1950’s misogyny if you can), that “the consumer is not a moron. She’s your wife.”
I’m not sure if it’s the The Trump era that’s dispelled these sentiments for me, a certain cynicism that seems to grow with age, or a terribly elitist view that the masses are uneducated, incurious and incapable of making good choices. We’re supposed to be “enlightened,” but addictions, prejudice and laziness keep us in our comfort zones, pushing us to make decisions that are not in the public interest or even our own personal interests. This is aided and abetted by a glut of “expert” content.
The Beatles broke through not just because they were fresh, adorable, visionary and incredibly talented. They toiled for well over Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, playing marathon sets in dive bars, honing their craft. The fact that great artists make it look easy doesn’t make it easy. Access to tools that allow us to self-publish, make music, podcast, pontificate or otherwise try to make our feelings known will only get you so far.
“Democratization” should not mean that everyone is entitled. Expertise must be earned with hard work and experience, not simply because there’s an app for that.