The end of the connoisseur?

November 20, 2008

[Reposted from Savage Minds]

I enjoyed Rex’s post about anthropology as connoisseurship, and have been thinking about it a lot. Then today, during the Remixing Anthropology session, Eric Kansa talked about how centralized search services, like Google, are eroding the power and authority of traditional information service providers. He used the tourism industry as an example, highlighting how efforts to control the staging of local culture are undermined by web 2.0 technologies, but I also saw this as a threat to the role of the anthropologist as connoisseur.

Anthropologists traditionally deployed their authority as connoisseurs to shape and contextualize the context within which “we” learned about and encountered “other” cultures. Hell, we even had a role defining how people learned about and encountered anthropological knowledge. But now that carefully cultivated connoisseurship is becoming less and less important as Google algorithms and Web 2.0 recommendation engines become the primary gateways. Sure, to the extent that anthropologists are indexed in Google their authority is still important, but the first hit for a topic might be a corporate site who understand better how to game the system with search engine optimization (SEO).

Of course, it might not be a bad thing if a website run by an indigenous community can outrank anthropologists on google. There is something democratizing about the shift, which allows the producers of culture to outrank the connoisseurs. But, as Eric pointed out, there is something disturbing about the fact that these algorithms are a black box whose rules are determined by a corporate monopoly. How’s wikia search coming along?