This article encompasses some of my thoughts on how the age of the internet and the enabling computing devices have democratized several activities across the spectrum; which were once dominated by the privileged. An undesirable side effect of this democratization is the rise of a wave of mediocrity surprisingly accompanied by fame.
The Internet Era
Before we dwell into the topic at hand, let us have a glance at the recent past, by which I mean a few centuries. The years from 1300 AD to 1600 AD marked the age of the Renaissance. Arguably, this was the period when modern science took its current form, along with the germination of many political and industrial innovations. Consequently, rather concurrently, started the ugly episode of colonialism, which the concerned aggressor parties, proudly call as the age of globalization.
What followed was a trend of indiscriminate exploitation of man (slavery) and natural resources, leading to large-scale industrialization. Industrialization was a step in the history of mankind which accelerated the progress of human civilization exponentially. But it was not just technological progress which got accentuated.
Throughout the history of mankind, the objects which we humans sought after the most have constantly evolved. It probably started as simple as food. When agriculture gave food stability, it gradually started moving to other complex materialistic things, underscored by the invention of money. Industrialization took this specific part of human evolution, the complexity of materialism, to a different level. The avenues for materialistic pursuit had multiplied with innovations in the market. A concurrent development was that the idea of the privileged got institutionalized.
The last two centuries, the 20th century, in particular, has been the century of political innovations: communism and capitalism, also marred by two global-scale conflicts. Around the time of the second global war, we invented computing machines (rather as an outcome of the war) and then connected them. A few decades later, now, we have a densely connected world of computing machines.
What the industrialization did two hundred years ago, today, the age of the internet is doing at a much faster rate and scale. Once our life, including money, got digitized, it catalyzed the evolution of human materialism. The internet and its numerous application democratized several activities like education, expression of art and creativity and more importantly commerce and trade. But it has also democratized the pursuit of materialism.
Democratization in Materialism
Materialism in the age of the internet has evolved much more rapidly. More than a decade back, owning a Gmail account (at the time of its launch) gave a sense of privilege. In fact, it was sold as a commodity on eBay. Today, a few thousand likes on a tweet is a precious commodity well worth flaunting to your friends. There are cases of many aspiring celebrities who paid shady organizations to get new followers, on their social networking accounts. The worth of politicians and celebrities is measured by the number of their followers on such accounts. A YouTuber known as PewDiePie can gain international fame and money rivalling a corporate power — from his room.
The millennials and more so, the Gen-Z, have the opportunity to express themselves, through Tik-Tok, Instagram and their ilk. The reactions from their audience are the commodity they seek vehemently, not just from their peers locally, but from connecting with people from all walks of life, globally. The desire to get the ‘likes’ has forced many of these minions to perform dangerously silly acts. Parents create social networking accounts for their toddlers commoditizing their innocence.
Platforms like Netflix have created avenues for filmmakers, unshackling them from the monopoly of the studios and distributors, and connecting them with the audience at scale, democratizing film making. With on-demand viewing possible, the once cherished goal of collecting records and CDs are lesser in vogue. Movie watching which used to be a rarer but memorable experience, with each moment cherished, has turned into binge-watching, stressing the mental faculties of any sane individual. The ramifications of such new habits on the human race are yet to unfold.
The process of buying/renting a property has been virtualized. There are more and more instances of buyers owning properties bought online, having never visited them onsite. Properties are bought in foreign destinations having never visited the country.
Quality lectures from top universities and ivy leagues are available at low cost to anyone interested to learn, a step toward removing the wall of competitive scores in SATs and other entrance exams. Thus democratizing the education for the masses. More and more educational degrees are being awarded completely online, it is only a matter of time, before the degrees, which were a commodity sold by the universities for abysmally high cost, will start losing value.
The materialistic pursuits, once privy to the privileged, have evolved and its new digitized avatars are no more inaccessible to the commoner. The pursuit of materialism has been democratized.
The Rise of the Mediocre Famous
The evolution of human activities and the changes in our acquired taste are not new. But the rate at which the change is happening is unprecedented. We human beings have a limited time to live. We are still limited by the amount of time we can stay awake and are constrained by our mental ability to learn. When the rate of disruption is exponential, with limits on our faculties, can the human society evolve its infrastructure and systems at the same rate? Looking at climate change, the answer seems more towards negative.
Adding more clarity to this thought, consider the example of content creation on streaming platforms. The amount of content is so high that people have started spending considerable time just deciding what to watch. A more interesting question is, why top filmmakers like Speilberg and Nolan do not want their movies to be released on such platforms. Fundamentally, it is because the democratization which these platforms enable brings in a certain kind of mediocrity with them, which these acclaimed movie makers cannot fathom to be a part of. It is difficult for these filmmakers to see their films turned into lesser commodities and shelved next to a large amount of sub-standard content. It is difficult to be brought in the category of binge-watched series rather than being part of a cinematic experience in a theatre where every moment is cherished by the audience. Note that there is excellent content on these platforms, but also there is an ocean of mediocrity.
Another example is that of university research. Most of the research groups across the universities in the world have trivialized research by evaluating a researcher based on the number of citations he or she receives. It is equivalent to the number of followers a Twitter user gets on his account to measure his influence. Similar to the methodologies used by social account users, the researchers employ malpractices by forming networks among themselves and citing sub-standard research within themselves to artificially inflate the worth of their research output. Once again, such practices have impacted even top universities because it is these measures (e.g. H-index) which are used for promotion of the faculty and grant allocation. It is saddening and dangerous for a society when its taxpayers' money is handed over to mediocre scientists. Universities are supposed to be the agents of societal change. When they get corrupted and adopt mediocrity it is a serious reason for worry.
There was a time when leaders used to rise from all walks of life, after considerable accomplishments in their field and then stepping into politics to serve the society. These leaders use to be the influencers primarily because they controlled the channels of communication. Now the democratization of expression has created scores of influencers on social networks and barrage with information completely unreliable and sometimes dangerous. Again, an ocean of mediocrity has taken over this role. A PewDiePie influences a white supremacist in another part of the world. Influencers such as these with little to no practical experience about the world have started impacting democratic elections at an unprecedented scale. It has led to the rise of the new crop of leaders who start their career as ‘leaders’ as if it were a profession. I am not supporting the alternative, where a few privileged controlled the flow of information. But this new reality is not rosy either. It must be acknowledged that Orange-Rose-Tulip revolutions are excellent positive developments of such technological advancements, but one cannot turn a blind eye to its pitfalls either.
Today sporting boards across the world select players under the influence of broadcasters. A broadcaster will make money only through advertisements. Sport sells if sportsmen with the large following play the sport. What it means is, apart from talent, being revered by your fans is increasingly becoming prime criteria for selection. Indirectly, are the social networks fanning the mediocrity to rise against the truly talented? What is even more problematic is when sportsmen and movie actors start influencing political decisions concerning health, science and foreign affairs when these men and women are hardly qualified to do so.
Democracy is fundamental to human growth but it has its issues. Most of the democracies in the world are far from mature. The democratization of our society through technology has had some extremely positive ramifications. But the rise of the famous mediocrity is becoming a pattern. Perhaps it is time, we employ the same technology to curb this phenomenon before it becomes deep-rooted in our society.