Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Latest Step Towards Loss of Meaning

By my records the last time I invoked Max Weber’s warnings (reinforced by Jürgen Habermas) about “loss of meaning” in a society dominated by a market-based consciousness industry was in a piece entitled “The Degradation of the Knowledge Worker.”  That piece had highly personal motivation, since I tended to think of myself as a “knowledge worker” back when I was doing research in Silicon Valley;  and the recognition that the current world of work viewed the most “productive knowledge worker” as “the one who operates out of ignorance, delegating all authority to support technology” was personally painful.  So I bailed on Silicon Valley (or it bailed on me);  and now I take my greatest satisfaction in writing reviews that focus more on descriptive analysis than on figuring out how many stars a rating deserves.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the “meaning” behind what I now do should be under the same attack as the research I used to do.  This was evident from a Fully Equipped piece by David Carnoy on the CNET News Web site (which, ironically, happens to be in their Reviews section).  The article is about reactions to the new novel The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly.  It turns out that readers have been trying to flood Web sites with one-star reviews of the book, not because they think it is a bad book but because they resent the fact that the Kindle and Nookbook prices are higher than the hardcover price on both and

I classify this as “loss of meaning” because it represents a shift of focus on the nature of reviewing itself.  Attention has migrated from the text (what we actually read when we open the book and why we might be interested in reading it) to the product, with a particular emphasis on how much we have to spend and whether or not that is a fair price.  Now it is bad enough that reviewers find themselves stuck with assigning a rating when they would rather just describe things well enough for the reader to make up his/her own mind.  I find it even worse that the “lazy reader,” who is only interested in the rating, should now be confounded by a “value” without knowing what is being evaluated.

For the most part those who take their reviewing work seriously are unlikely to get stuck in this trap.  The problem arises when reviewing is consigned to that purported “wisdom” of the crowd.  Ultimately, the crowd makes up its own mind [sic] regarding criteria that are relevant for evaluation;  and those decisions often arise from the surfacing of a trend that then attracts many followers.  It is because that trend may not be based on relevant (or, for that matter, accurate) knowledge that Adam Smith’s The Money Game posed the most important proposition of playing the stock markets:

The crowd is always wrong.

This is not to say that, in this case, the crowd is either right or wrong about the price of this particular e-book edition.  My point is that price is not relevant to the reviewing process.  The attentive reader uses the review to decide how much (s)he wants to read the book.  Having decided that the book is worth reading, there are all sorts of options, which include getting on the wait list of the public library.  Presumably, the logic of the market will set prices on the basis of which would-be readers choose which options.  Unfortunately, those of us who write for such readers are now at risk of having our voices drowned out by crowd-based market judgments that have nothing to do with reviewing as we know it.

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