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Brexit: the rise of the citizen expert

2016-08-06 06:13:04

With an almost perfect sense of timing, just as Ian Dunt of Politics.co.uk writes that: "Most of our current leading politicians appear to have no idea what they’re talking about", up pops Daniel Hannan in the Spectator arguing that the way for the UK to leave the EU is to repeal the European Communities Act.

What is interesting about this is the commenter who writes: "Daniel Hannan knows he talks rubbish - The Spectator knows Hannan talks rubbish and despite all this rubbish gets published".

That is actually the paradox which is currently poisoning the debate about Brexit, to which we referred in yesterday's post where we see the discourse sinking to such a low level that it is beyond remedy.

In this, though, one has to be charitable assume, like the Spectator commenter, that Hannan really can't be as stupid as he makes out and that the editorial staff of the magazine are not as bereft of intelligence as their article would indicate. One then wonders quite what they are trying to achieve by such a monumental display of stupidity.

We do not need to rehearse the issues to know that repeal of the ECA is a non-starter, and for many different reasons – not least that a broadly Europhile Parliament would never approve a repeal Bill, given that insanity had infected the Government and was mad enough to have introduced such a Bill.

Given also that there is a manifest need to explore the complex and vital issue of how best to extract the nation from the EU, having regard to the constraints of Article 50 – and all the other complications – one might have thought that a magazine which styles itself as [one of] the leading political periodicals in the country might be rushing in to fill the vacuum.

But it is Dunt who has put his finger on the problem. In a more simplistic (and perhaps innocent) world, there has been a tendency to believe that our political masters were tolerably well-informed and had a good grasp of contemporary issues.

If this referendum has done nothing else, though, it has exposed the staggering ignorance of our political classes, and the handmaidens in the media. They have been in a debate about complex issues, where there is no substitute for knowledge and where it is not possible to "wing it" and get away with it.

At the same time, we are in the middle of an information revolution, where it has never before been so easy (and quick) to acquire knowledge. Thus, while politicians tend to remain locked into the traditional ways of learning (relying excessively on prestige-driven oral exchanges), the ordinary citizen is often much better informed.

This is a phenomenon which has not yet been properly (or at all) understood. The aphorism "knowledge is power" is still as valid as ever it was, and it is fair to say that much of a politician's power resides in the impression that they have better access to knowledge than ordinary mortals.

The important thing here is that, with extraordinary wealth of information now available, it is not access which is the limiting factor, but time – and then skill. There simply isn't enough time in a day to visit all the information on a given subject, so even if MPs devoted all their time to keeping themselves up-to-date, they could never compete with the specialist who can afford to devote more time to the acquisition of information than they can.

Furthermore, in the main, MPs tend to have poor IT skills, and even worse research skills. Many are ill-at-ease with Google and other search engines and display only a rudimentary grasp of the techniques needed to maximise data capture.

We are, therefore, in the midst of creating a new political model, where there is no longer a hierarchy in the information domain, with those at the top best informed, with a top-down flow to lesser mortals. If anything, the triangle has been inverted although if we are looking at it graphically, we may be looking at a bell-shaped curve. Those in the middle are becoming the masters of information.

One might call this the rise of the "citizen expert", with a growing band of people who can outstrip all the traditional gatekeepers, and can even defeat the band of self-regarding academics who regard themselves as the custodians of knowledge.

However, the response of the political classes and their media handmaidens has not been adroit. Rather than seeking to come to terms with this phenomenon, they are emulating the ostrich, and hiding themselves away – denying even the existence of rival bodies of expertise.

The effect of this is for the ignorati to expose to an even greater audience their lack of knowledge. And this has an interesting dynamic. With still very much a monopoly access to the legacy media, their attempts to reinforce their grip on the agenda are having the opposite effect to that intended. The more they seek to demonstrate what they know, the more they reveal the depths of their ignorance.

So far, there are no clear signs of where this is taking us, except that the EU referendum was characterised by a rejection of the "experts". Although embraced be the legacy media, the establishment experts have been savaged by the blogs and the social media, where the writ of their prestige does not carry.

Whatever the eventual outcome, the one thing of which we can be certain is that the political classes have a problem. They have lost their monopoly over the flow of information and can no longer control the agenda in the way that they once could.

In a sense, information has been democratised. It is possible that, it its wake, we could actually see a true national democracy, rather than the pale shadow that passes for it at present. Thus, if information really is power, the people are probably closer to real power than they ever have been.

What they need to do is to realise that there has been a shift of power, and then they need to learn how to use their new-found power to effect.