Who is an amateur and who is a professional? Outside the world of pornography, this distinction is becoming quite blurred and some folks don't quite like that. Indians particularly do not like blurry definitions of identity and its blurrier relation to ability. We are blurry about reality (“Everything's Maya”) but quite precise about who-is-allowed-to-say-what.

If you write a harsh review of a movie starring a popular star, people will politely demand to know if you have ever wielded a camera in your life. If you unleash a scathing diatribe on Hindu fundamentalism, there will be enquiries about your pseudo-secular bias. On the internet, when the faucet of logic runs dry like in Chennai in the late 1980s, the water lorries of fallacy take over, specifically the “How are you qualified to say what you are saying” fallacy.

We are obsessed with qualifications. But why are expertise and “professionalism” still associated with degrees and institutional associations to the point of ridiculousness?

 This debate between amateurism and professionalism has always been around, but in light of the growth of the internet, it takes on a completely new relevance. The social philosopher Jurgen Habermas once said that internet egalitarianism ultimately results in the inability of “intellectuals” to influence cultural direction what with likes, votes and retweets determining content importance. Some commentators have even described the internet as being Marxist, a dangerous collective utopia. But that confuses me. Votes are democratic, so if the internet allows people to collectively figure out what's important, how is that communism? Or as the popular internet meme goes, in Soviet Russia communism is democracy, which explains why most totalitarian communist regimes almost always name their counties “democratic,” like DPR Korea. Since the internet allows ordinary amateurs to influence culture, it is communist because in true democracies, professionals will be able to rig elections. 

This is also funny because it is a neo-conservative view of culture that insists that professionalism and expertise must be centralised, and yet it's ironic because conservatives also want less centralised control elsewhere. This irony is of course a pillar of capitalism because centralised control of culture is profitable. It is also why, as George Carlin points out, the American right wing wants to protect babies only till the point they are born, after which they don't support welfare, maternity leaves and public schooling. But, as we always do, we digress. 

As far as I am concerned, I am quite happy to let the internet determine what I might find interesting from a cultural perspective. I may not consider letting the internet collectively do heart surgery on me like a multiplayer game. So there are situations where the institutional professional (like a surgeon) is more valuable than the savvy amateur. Context is important. The comedian Vivek was once taunted by a haughty heroine who asserted her superiority by claiming that she was from Cambridge. His response - “I'm from Basin Bridge.”

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012