The Foolishness of Crowds (and certain erudite New York City professors)

At last weekend's Google/Stanford Legal Futures conference, there was a panel about Web 2.0 and American democracy that featured two erudite New York City based professors: Beth Simone Noveck from New York Law School and Jay Rosen from New York University's Journalism School. What is it, I wonder, about working in New York City that makes its distinguished professors so utterly divorced from the realities of the actual world? Perhaps the NYC bakers are putting mind-altering bagels into faculty brown bag lunches; or maybe there's something intoxicating about the water supply in Gotham that is muddying the minds of New York City's most learned faculty.

Whatever the reasons for this mishegas, the results are spectacularly bizarre -- even by the traditionally high standards of idealistic New York City intellectuals. Take specimen #1: Beth Simon Noveck, the Director of the Institute for Information, Law and Policy at New York Law School. Ms Noveck believes so strongly in something called "wiki-government" (ie: having unpaid, anonymous amateurs running of the American government) that she wrote an article entitled -- yes, you guessed it -- Wiki-Government for the Winter issue of the excellent new progressive quarterly Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Now Beth is an extremely personable lady and a most distinguished expert and I don't really mean to be unkind (it's not my nature to insult people wiser than myself), but her Wiki-Government article was so misguided that I was forced to write my own response. It is entitled "The Foolishness of Crowds" and has just been published in the Spring issue of Democracy. Here's the first paragraph:

Without a trace of irony, Beth Simone Noveck, a law professor and thus paragon of the professional elite, favorably quotes the George Bernard Shaw adage that "all professions are conspiracies against the laity" ["Wiki-Government," Issue #7]. Does Shaw really mean to indict all professions? In addition to medical doctors (against whom Shaw ran his own vendetta), that must include civil engineers, librarians, architects, nuclear scientists, high-school teachers, and nanotechnologists. When it comes to politics, would Shaw include the professional bureaucrats who successfully engineered the New Deal programs? Is Shaw saying that self-interested professionals consciously conspire against "ordinary people"? Maybe, maybe not. But Noveck does indeed appear to be straight-faced in her concurrence, particularly since she adds that "nowhere is this more the case than in a democracy." READ ON

Like Beth Simone Noveck, Jay Rosen -- who wrote his dissertation under Neil Postman at NYU -- is a very learned expert on media; and, like Noveck, he also has some very silly ideas about the impact of media democratization on American politics. On the panel about democracy and Web 2.0 at Law Futures, Rosen argued that professional political operatives like Bob Shrum and Mark Penn are the problem with the US political system. So,  Rosen argued, let the pure amateurs (ie: the electorate) seize back power from the corrupt professionals. Rosen probably has a point here -- overpaid consultants like Penn and Shrum certainly aren't blameless, yet surely they are more of a consequence than a root cause of the problems with American representative democracy. But what really irritated me about Rosen's presentation was his appropriation of Hannah Arendt to his wiki-cause of pure democracy. However one reads Arendt, it is really hard to dig up anything in her work that indicates she would have been an enthusiast of the pure wiki-government of the masses. Indeed, her Origins of Totalitarianism, which is a 700 page polemic against mob rule, should be required (re)reading for wisdom-of-the-crowd utopians like Rosen and Noveck.

I''m afraid that Professors Noveck and Rosen -- two paragons of a profession which is, by definition, elitist --  have become inebriated with the anti-expert kool-aid of the Web 2.0 wiki revolution. The scary/hilarious thing is that these professors really are serious about replacing trained government professionals with the amateur crowd. I'm not sure whether I should laugh or cry at the foolishness of these media mavens from New York City.