Caveat lector – the subversion of quality writing is dumbing us down

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Caveat Lector








Caveat lector – let the reader beware, and let’s not be sidetracked by accusations of ivory tower pomposity. The reader bloody well better beware. Some dangerous trends have emerged from the ever changing societal swamp that we live in. Most of them already have an insidious effect on our lives, but together they promise a wave interference effect of cataclysmic magnitude. It threatens democracy, free speech and the American way. No, scrap the American way and replace it with the intelligent way. Welcome to the age of the useful idiot, the lowest common denominator and the dictatorship of the masses.

Not so long ago it was actually expected of journalists, commentators, essayists and other alchemists of the written word to produce work filled with critical analysis, insight, originality and depth. Occasionally this happened. There was a mechanism in place to unofficially police the quality of writing that the general public consumed. Since there were limited platforms for scribblers the public spotlight was intensely focused on those who were actually published. Essays and articles were extensively debated and the broad public was a ring side party to the ensuing intellectual gymnastics. Unfortunately this also sometimes meant that political agendas and media monopolies could manipulate what was written about and how it was discussed.
Then the flood gates opened. Social media, blogs and websites proliferated in the face of humanity’s insatiable hunger for self-promotion and constant social interaction. Mass media was finally democratised and accessible to everyone. Or was it?

Big companies are not stupid. Reprobate has written about the massive convergence in the global media industry that has taken place since the early eighties. Huge conglomerates control most of the media that is consumed and they are out to make money, not enlighten the unwashed masses. Why pay an expensive, intelligent, well read and experienced person if you can employ an ignorant, naive kid with an elementary degree at a tenth of the salary. The written media, especially internet publications, have been using cheap-to-hire young writers to churn out high volume, low quality content for ages. Young people with paint-by-numbers qualifications, limited experience and even less knowledge are being foisted on a gullible public as expert commentators. Articles have become shorter, shallower, with little to zero insight. Original, critical writing requires far more than the facile obsession with what’s hip and trendy, that is so common among most media workers. The mediocre quality of articles in mainstream media is evidence of this ongoing dumbing down process. And because it is omnipresent, many readers do not realise how the average quality of the content they are consuming have been degraded to such an extent that they themselves are being dumbed down.

A second technique employed by big media is to throw massive quantities of low quality content at the reader/viewer. When the cowed elves of the modern news room are not producing enough pseudo-journalistic pap to their masters’ liking there are always willing readers who will contribute to the conglomerate’s blog section. Co-option of the blogosphere is a pretty handy way to generate free content, traffic and thus money. Useful idiots indeed. In South Africa this strategy has been successfully employed by media giant Naspers and its subsidiary, Media24. It basically boils down to swamping the internet with an existing brand to establish a monopoly.
The shockingly poor content of most of its publications aside, there is a definite case for anti-trust legislation to break Naspers up. At a minimum, freedom of the press is at stake, and not necessarily from government side as per the usual lament. Readers tend to forget that Naspers has deep roots in the fascist policies of Apartheid, a corporate culture that is still evident in the fact that most of its current market capitalisation is derived from business dealings in repressive countries like China and Russia, where freedom of speech is definitely not the order of the day.

On a global scale you just need to look at the growth of websites like Buzzfeed to realise that the old adage of ‘content is king’ as a reference to quality is no longer the case. Quantity of content though is king. Buzzfeed’s model relies heavily on viral content, aka the lowest common denominator, which it then repackages as ‘news’. To make all that brilliant ‘news’ even easier to consume it has conveniently graded individual items as: ‘LOL, awesome, OMG, cute, fail and WTF.’ Very handy if you are a cave dwelling troglodyte more au fait with grunts and pictograms of bison and sabre toothed lions. WTF indeed.

Here in sunny South Africa we have also done our inbred past justice by awarding the literary phenomenon that is (that’s ‘What you looking at?’ for the monolingual reader), the top South African blog award in 2010. And I’m sure they richly deserved that award, if the main criteria were to cram as many tits and ass pictures as possible, together with some puerile attempts at satire and loads of scatological references, into a website.

All diatribes have a genesis and in the interest of transparency I will attempt to explain the catalyst for this foam-speckled vituperation. As an avid follower of all things hi-tec and highly polluting I irregularly frequent in order to catch up with some of the latest memes in the world of technology. Although most of the youngsters writing the articles have reference frameworks about as broad as Gwyneth Paltrow’s bony derrière, they do occasionally come up with some useful snippets. Mildly annoying at times with its lack of depth and insight, but never offensively so. Until a recent post by a young muppet, trying to erroneously establish non-existent credentials as a professional writer and then committing the utterly heinous crime of defending the case for grammar irrelevancy.

In a nutshell, the Harry Potter weaned elf, has taken it upon herself to pronounce on the socioeconomic and political well-being of over seven billion people, delivering the verdict that proper language usage should only be reserved for formal situations and when addressing the older generation. Well I say, forget about the older generation and all formal situations. Let’s rather take an adult’s gander at the implications of limited linguistic skills. If you have a limited vocabulary and grasp of grammar and syntax, your ability to communicate and interpret information becomes equally limited. That means that you are less likely to get a good job, because you are functionally illiterate. South Africa is in a uniquely vulnerable position in this regard. For decades, not so smart or well read white people have been given access to university education and jobs which they would never have been able to occupy in the real world. Witness the South African paradox of the bumbling lawyer, the flummoxed medical doctor, the obtuse journalist. It is conjecture at this point but South Africa may have the professional population with the lowest IQ in the world. Add to that the horrendous educational track record of the post-liberation government and South Africa may well be the world’s first fully integrated idiocracy.

Inferior language skills also mean that you are more likely to be the victim of marketing ploys, political manipulation and common fraud. On a philosophical level, advocating grammar irrelevancy in any situation is equivalent to advocating mediocrity. On an apocalyptic level the failure to understand the subtleties and nuances of the written word, may lead to severe misunderstandings and the pressing of the red button that opens up the nuclear silos. So in one fell swoop of naive ignorance our little elf has promoted poverty, stupidity and nuclear holocaust.

The biggest problem is that in our daily haste we tend to scan without questioning the credentials of the writer. There is a naivete surrounding the acceptance of an article if it is published in a well known newspaper or on a popular website. Just like many well known financial pundits have been exposed as charlatans in recent times, it would be wise to be circumspect with a lot of written content that is proffered as original, well researched or adhering to the highest journalistic principles. The sad truth is that 90% of what you read has been syndicated, regurgitated, summarised, cannibalised, plagiarised and fuckerised.

Furthermore, proper analysis and insight are not possible in the way too common 500 word snippets that are being dished up as opinion pieces. Short attention spans and functional illiteracy are signs of a dumbed down society. A society that will increasingly be a victim of its own mediocrity and bad decision making skills. There should be more space and support for longer form articles, essays and opinion pieces if we are to turn the tide against ignorance. There are some brilliant online magazines, blogs and news websites, run on ethical and independent platforms, filled with high quality, original content. Content that will actually make you a more useful human being. So, be a bit more critical about what reading material you consume. Be a little less lazy and obtuse by searching for writing that enlightens you, as opposed to being used as a human dumping ground for written drivel.

This is not just a diatribe, it is an appeal to our collective (and possibly mythical) common sense before a deluge of foul smelling idiocy sweeps civilisation as we know it away. The barbarians are not just howling at the gates, their functionally illiterate little fingers are eagerly tapping away at a keyboard near you.

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