Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Conspiracies against the laity

I get e-mail from some web marketing outfit:

I help companies push negative reports about their businesses down the Google rankings, replacing them with positive ones.

Or some companies just want their best testimonials to rank highly on Google.

Is this something that you might be interested in?

Yours sincerely,

This disarmingly straight-to-the-point sales pitch to potential clients is a refreshing change from the disingenuous boilerplate issued by the marketing/advertising/public relations industry for public consumption ('with marketing, businesses attempt to inform consumers about the existence of a product or a company, and its benefits','Advertisers seek only to ensure that consumers make informed choices','The public relations industry also has prevented consumer injury and illness, raised awareness of products that have improved our quality of life, advanced worthwhile causes...').

Far from simply informing consumers when somebody's come up with a better mousetrap, the bullshit industry is also in the business of burying bad news and sexing up the faintest glimmer of positivity. It does trade in facts, but facts heavily adulterated by distortion and misinformation.

Adam Smith thought that 'People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices'. George Bernard Shaw boiled this down to 'All professions are conspiracies against the laity.' Although true in part, that's a bit unfair to most trades and professions. After all, people need some form of quality assurance - you wouldn't want to unknowingly buy an unroadworthy car, have your wiring done by an untrained electrician, or be treated by a doctor who flunked medical exams. Most trades and professions can make a case that at least some of the costs they impose and some of barriers they erect to outsiders are justified by the need for reasonable standards. Training and regulation cost money and practitioners are entitled to a fair reward for their skills, or for the quality of their product.

It's harder to mount such a defence when you're talking about a trade that purports to inform the public, but routinely confuses, manipulates and misinforms. Sharp practice in itself is nothing new. People have known for centuries that buyers need to beware. But in the modern world, marketing, adverting and PR have become separate professions, turning bullshit from a mere adjunct to the real business of providing a good or service into a full-time specialisation. A specialisation that looks a lot like a real conspiracy against the laity.

I'm not chiefly worried about this in terms of the continuing arms race between buyers and sellers. Buyers have always had to beware and probably always will. Fact of life. Deal with it. What does worry me is the political arms race between the mercenary bullshit industry, pay rolled by the rich and powerful, and voters.

Thomas Jefferson thought that 'wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government' [my italics]. To modern ears, the tone reeks of patrician condescension, but the central point - that democracy requires not only a choice between alternatives, but an informed choice - is spot on. Hiring in the bullshit noise machine to drown out the still, small voice of reality and create a biddable culture built on paranoia, a distrust of critical thought and a tolerance of lying is the precise opposite of giving people information and choice.

Talk about subversives threatening the democratic process and the image that would probably come to mind would be of tiny bands of militants, radicals or extremists planning direct action in a bedsit somewhere. It seems to me that most of these groups are small fry compared to the well-funded, well-connected professional bullshitters, hired in the hope of subverting the one person, one vote system and delivering a one dollar, one vote outcome to the highest bidder.