by Julius WiedemannJan 14, 2021
Maybe one of the most controversial subjects in this moment is freedom of expression. I would say with a lot of confidence that it is no coincidence that the freedoms we take to give opinions about nearly everything, and to feel that we have to express a point of view all the time, have to do with the fact that we may have acquired too many tools to receive information, but not knowledge. Opinions spread out quickly and spark generalised anxiety. Fake news are here to stay but should be combatted with all force. Defamation and misinformation have become the tools of the day for politicians and dictators to achieve and retain power. It has long been also the strategy of many industries, such as pharmaceutical and chemical, but not exclusive to them. As we enter the age of designing opinions, education becomes harder than ever. And the consequences of every step we take might need years of damage control and recovery operations.
It is no coincidence that Facebook started from an exercise of rating women at Harvard University not long ago. From there, a lot of things seem to have gone off-rail regarding how people look at others and their appeal in the digital world. The last big wake-up call we had was probably the moment when Instagram stopped allowing people to see the number of likes others had. Study after study indicates that the level of anxiety generated by the numbers of likes was not only apparent, it was a fact. The competition for likes or positive reviews is certainly ancient. Appreciation is something that no one discards and has built reputation, credibility, popularity, and finally some sort of gratification, being it financially rewarded or not. Ego is however the most effective fishing instrument. In the documentary The Social Dilemma, Tristan Harris points out to the fact that what matters today is not that social networks sell your information. What is on sale, and what gives value to what they charge their clients, is how they can shape opinions to sell things to their clients. It changes completely the paradigm of information usage and misuse.
Opinions can be good, as they can serve as a guide. But they are useful mostly when they come from people who know what they are talking about. A good example is the Michelin guide for food. A number of specialists go to restaurants anonymously and then their opinions are collected and put together in the form of recommendations. Over decades now it has served as the ultimate guide for good gastronomy. Recently, the 50 Best award has created a new hype in the food market by putting out a list of only a handful of 50 locations worldwide that are supposed to offer the best culinary experience. Less is more.
But opinions can be also disturbing. Go to Yelp and Trip Advisor for example. Restaurants will have from just a few to thousands of evaluations, produced in very diverse contexts, from very diverse groups, in completely different times, allowing for completely different outcomes. But worst of all, I do not know how these valuations are put together and construed. I find it hard to believe that they add a lot of value. Suddenly, opinions aren’t worth anything. They are just words lost in a sea of impressions, creating some sort of “banalisation” of knowledgeable and meaningful information. A sign of that is probably the reason why Google has bought Zagat. Adding good opinions, or rather professional evaluations, to refer consumers is in the interest of the search engine that is recommending good things to its users.
A bad experience in a restaurant is something not desirable. But it can get much worse if you go to a really bad doctor. And that can happen these days more often than you think. Clinics and individual doctors are rated online the same way restaurants and candy shops are. Criteria is the most important thing to give any opinion, and it will be attended only when we have not only information but also well-informed knowledge.
There is of course a difference between having an opinion and being opinionated. The same way there is a difference between making a judgement and being judgemental. Moreover, the same way there is a difference between having freedom of expression and inciting violence. The democratisation of digital tools allows not only for that, but also to massive collusion to create an environment where opinions can be designed and guided, for the good or the bad. When professional advice is required, less is more useful.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.