If someone whose judgment we trust recommends a dentist, a plumber or a visit to the Eden Project we take them seriously and do something about it. Similarly, if we are pointed to a product or service by a reliable source, we explore it for fitness of purpose and price. Thirty years ago these casual recommendations were privately, ‘family-and-friends’ generated.
There may have been the odd note on a restaurant bill saying “If you enjoyed it, please tell others” but the process was limited and random. Nobody said ‘I give this doctor a four and a half star rating’. Algorithms didn’t compile cleverly refined opinions or deeply explored nuances of feeling. A television game show might have been called ‘Like or Not Like?’. The swingometer of opinion was as clumsy as the BBC’s early election predictive pendulum.
All that has changed, of course. Now we are pestered to rate everything, to express our considered opinion on every subject, even if we have to look up its meaning in Google. Recently I was asked to pass judgment on an evaluation system of advanced dermatological assessments. Individually I know what the words mean; together, they make a mental haystack. I still haven’t found the needle in it. Since there is no flattery as great as being asked your opinion, I fall for such requests as fast and as frequently as, probably, you do.
Use a GRAB (anything) and you won’t have enjoyed it for long before you must praise or damn it. Switch to UBER and things will likely get worse. Tick the wrong box and you will find yourself lured into surveys by MORI and YouGov seeking intricate details of your political preferences even the National Census blushes to ask. As for AirBNB, one eiderdown feather out of place and Heaven’s Wrath descends on the offending establishment, closing its doors to future lettings.
It is the age of Reputational Assessments, spurred on by the social media. ‘Who Thinks What’ is so vital that conventional advertising has given way to ‘Tweet by Tweet’, ‘Gossip by Facebook’ and ‘LinkedIn by kind permission of’. During WWII as young children we were fed VIROL to supplement the protein-light rations. It guaranteed growth and success. Now if your message goes VIRAL it, too, guarantees growth and success. What goes around, comes around.
So much is our opinion sought that it is starting to take over from the democratic vote itself. A political slip of the tongue and the parliamentary grave opens up before an aspiring candidate. A well-fixed non-hairdo, and Broadway Lights announce the Clown of the Century. We volunteer and discuss our most intimate details for billions to see online while, face to face with a qualified doctor, we hesitate to mention the word sex.
Lies were not invented by WeChat, false alarms did not emanate from Messenger, emails were not the first carriers of Fake News. Hyperbole has seduced us since we could flutter our eyelashes. Newspapers, even those written purely to titillate, imposed only limited disruption on our lives. It was as if the earthy common sense of the reader automatically sorted Pride from Prejudice and Sense from Sensibility. So, as early as the start of the 19th Century, Jane Austen could tell a story to entertain and educate without precipitating a libel case.
Today, the speed with which we are assaulted by fake news overrides the brakes of caution. We attribute authenticity to even the most implausible con-job and stir our emotions into a frenzy of hate at the hint of others’ opinions. The gift of ability to communicate fast is so abused that legislators already seek to curb free speech, to try to avoid riot and physical combat. Their efforts are too slow – and rightly resisted. Orwell’s 1984 is near enough without that.
We have talked about education for a long time – and done a pretty good job of it in parts of the world. Little of it has prepared us for a media freedom we never expected. Too gentle upbringing and relatively easily available comfort and security have driven away our personal disciplines. Unbelief has blunted our judgment of right and wrong. We are overwhelmed by resources but don’t have the rigorous, creative minds to use them sensibly.
And yet, brilliant minds are what we need to save the planet from destruction.
We have to stop and ponder where we are – and where we are going.