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William C. Altreuter
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Sunday, July 15, 2007

In an essay on the qualifications of the current group of presidential candidates Matt Bai posits that the "emergence of the Internet age has been accompanied, in general, by a steady devaluing of expertise." Bai is hardly the first to make this observation. It is a popular truism among a lot of pseudo-intellectual journalists, and other members of classes that have been used to having their qualifications to explain things to the rest of the population taken for granted. As is often the case with the opinions these people put out, this particular hypothesis is 180 degrees wrong, wrong, wrong. I would put it to you that the emergence of the Internet age has in fact demonstrated that there is a great deal more expertise in the world than had previously ever been assumed, and that the market for it has not been devalued at all.

If you are reading this, for example, the chances are excellent that you are a regular consumer of quite a number of additional sources of news and opinion, and it is also very likely that these other outlets are far more diverse than the traditional sources used to be. If you lived in New York in the 70's and 80's, for example, you could, if you were so inclined, read the Times, the News and the Post. You could also pick up the Wall Street Journal, bringing the cost of your daily print media consumption up to about the same as your daily transportation. NPR was hard to get in a lot of the City then, but there were two local television stations with news programs, the three network news programs, decent news programing on PBS, and two all-news radio stations. That sounds like a lot, but after all, New York was the center of media for the entire country, and a media capital world-wide rivaled by very few other cities. You wouldn't have to drive far at all to find yourself in a city with one newspaper, usually owned by a chain, and usually just carrying wire-service reporting. If you wanted the Times, it came in by bus, and you could pick it up some time after lunchtime, if you were lucky.

If you think about it, what has happened to music in our time is similar to what has happened to news and opinion writing. Used to be that if you wanted to be in the know about music you'd follow the music business. There were perhaps a dozen labels out there, and in any given region there'd be maybe one decent radio station. You read Rolling Stone, and maybe Creem or Crawdaddy. These publications followed what the labels were putting out, because the labels were buying advertisements. It seemed then that there was a lot of music going on, but really there wasn't as much as you'd think-- there's a lot more happening today, and if you don't realize that, it is because you have lost track of the fact the the art is different from the means of distribution. Ask your kids-- they'll explain it. Ask Maria Schneider.

Bai likens journalists to physicians: "A generation ago, you went to the doctor to find out about the pain in your knee; now you go to WebMD, diagnose it yourself and tell him what medicines you want. People used to trust stockbrokers and insurance agents; now they buy and sell at E*Trade and compare policies online. American voters who once looked to newspaper columnists for guidance on politics now blog their own idle punditry." He can't see how specious this comparison is, but I'm sure you can, gentle reader. The training necessary to perform surgery is quite different from the training necessary to have a legitimate political opinion. For the latter, access to news and information is the necessary first requirement-- paired with the willingness to think about the information, instead of merely looking to newspaper columnists. Looking to newspaper columnists, it seems to me, is one of the things that got us into this mess. You want proof? Look no further in the Magazine than the next page, where Robert Novak is Q&A'd. Novak is the kinda guy Bai reckons is qualified to do our thinking for us.

There are a surprising number of experts out there, and the Internet gives us-- for the first time in history-- greater access to that expertise than was ever possible before. This is not a devaluation of expertise-- it is its flowering.

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