The Internet is like a restaurant with a poster at the entrance greeting its customers with the words: "Hi, your neighbour at the next table will be your chef today." The pros are off on holiday, the amateurs have taken over - and not just the kitchen but schools, the media, commerce and social services, as well. Experts are already sounding the alarm. Internet pioneer Andre Keen sees the advent of the "hour of the bunglers" and senses a "cultural degeneration" in this rise of the dilettantes. His reasoning: it blurs the traditional boundary between specialist and layman, professional and amateur, artist and audience. In short: between the elite and the masses.
There is some truth to that. But does it really have to be condemned? The elite have always lashed out against anything new. If they'd been around at the creation of new life forms, in their outrage they would have yelled: "But why monkeys? Life is so peaceful now among us worms! Monkeys only think about sex." Much as the worm bosses worried about their own disempowerment with every new species that arose, the masters of traditional culture are concerned about their supremacy. And they have good reason: every time the media undergoes a transformation, it is accompanied by a redistribution of social power.
Will digitalisation bring about a change in which power, for the very first time, does not shift from an old to a new elite, but rather from the elite to the masses, from the top to the bottom? Quite possibly. Once only listeners, the plebs are now making themselves heard online, amateurs are levering experts out, users are transforming into producers. The result is rarely great wisdom, yet it does yield all sorts of practical things for everyday life: tips and evaluations of professors, doctors, hotels, beaches, airlines, restaurants, computers, books always from users, for users. This gives laymen a means of circumventing the well-oiled machine of marketing and experts.
Five hundred years ago, Erasmus of Rotterdam proclaimed the "Praise of Folly". This great humanist ridiculed the intellectual snobbery of scribes, pitted "life" against "school", experience against dogma, laughter against earnestness; he cited unspoiled "folly" as the sole source of social and individual happiness. In any case, he would "rather be a fool than a celebrated wise man among scholars".
That essay by Erasmus gave fools and laymen permission to see for themselves, to make their own judgments, to look at things and people from an entirely naive, unprejudiced perspective. Scholars' uproar was great - back then just as it is today. They perceive the rise of the layman as a subversive force against sovereign knowledge. They fear the layman. Laymen are not cleverer. Yet they have a proximity to things that scholars lack. And for the first time ever, digitalisation has now given them an all-purpose medium to express themselves.