This short documentary was made based on the original article below and was selected for the Earl’s Court Film Festival 2018
Everyone’s A Critic
No. Literally. Everyone is a critic. Not just personally judgemental, but you, me, we’re all verified published critics, our words heeded by countless others, our opinions disseminated around the world.
“Feedback” used to describe the ear piercing noise made when a microphone got too close to a speaker. Now we’re all squawking, screaming, feedback. Anything we buy, any hotel or tea shoppe we visit, every experience we have, from a hospital appointment to the dog kennel, we’re expected to rate and review. Our digital opinion matters. Soon, you can forget getting a eulogy at your funeral: I’m expecting three and half stars, six likes and a bunch of negative feedback reviews – five of them rated as “helpful”.
Between the penis enlargements and the diet pills, a third of my spam is feedback requests. And the requirement for feedback has mechanised me, I’ve become a human response bot. I’ve applied artificiality to my intelligence and learned to be like a computer – I have a document with a list of stock feedback phrases that I copy and paste to fulfil my social network contract.
“Brilliant eBayer, great communication, thanks.”
“On time, well packaged, delivered safely, many thanks.”
“Stiff for hours, best blue pills I’ve come across [winky face].”
But the question is: why are they asking me? Why don’t they ask someone who actually knows what they’re talking about? Or maybe even someone who gives a f***?
B.B., Before Bezos, “Critic” was an actual, real life, job description. Budding wannabe reviewers worked their way up through journalism, they became trusted as knowledgeable experts in their fields and then they would find inventive and entertaining ways to praise, admonish, suggest improvements and inform readers about what was good or bad in the world. It wasn’t easy: universal ideas of “taste” had to be found, agreed and applied. Mozart’s music was good, William McGonagall’s poetry was bad and nobody bothered to have an opinion about All Trade Adhesive Cloth Duct Tape.
Now, A.B., the duct tape gets four and half stars and 193 people have, apparently, reviewed it on Amazon; it’s received more user insight than my last novel – but then it’s stickier and, I have to accept, a lot more effective at preventing kidnapees from screaming.
Professional critics are hard to find nowadays, mainly because most of them are stuck at home, chained to their laptops, zero-hour minimum-wage contractor drones hired to big up products on online market places. For today’s critic, “Verified Purchaser” is the only expert credential needed because “The people of this country have had enough of experts.”
The most terrifying thing about Gove’s blinkered pro-brexit-despite-all-the-evidence pronouncement is its insight, its awful truth, we really have had enough of experts. I mean obviously we still want them flying our aeroplanes and diagnosing our tumours but bugger their opinions, that’s not democracy.
The reason a national newspaper could get away with calling our judiciary “The enemies of the people” (Daily Mail 4 Nov 2016) is because, since the advent of online consumerism, we have accepted that the only valid judgement is by the people. Not twelve peers good and true, but hundreds, thousands, even millions, and the only criteria for their judgement to be counted is being in a wealth and age bracket that puts them online. We have become conditioned to populist ideology through the relentless drive of giant online retailers desperate to sell stuff. Even satire, the biting funny bone of personal criticism, has been overwhelmed by the internet meme. Produced, shared and adapted by hundreds of thousands of anonymous photo-shop users, they’ve collectively elevated the idea of the repeated joke ad infinitum et absurdum.
Now we numbly accept that judgement must be crowdsourced, despite the well-worn fallacy: “faeces is good because a billion flies can’t be wrong.” But we should probably be asking, is it really “the wisdom of crowds”? Or is it a “mob mentality”?
Look at what really happens when we face this democratisation of opinion; now that we’re forced to try and understand value and worth from the massed judgements of equally ignorant amateurs.
Booking a holiday? Want to know if you’ll love the place you’re going? Go on Trip Advisor of course. This is why your heart sinks when you think about it. Because you know that now you’re going to have to painstakingly trawl through hundreds of reviews paying attention to what’s being said but, at the same time, trying to assess the character of each reviewer from their digital signature. With a Sherlockian eye to human psychology you must review each reviewer: who is holding a grudge, who brought the rose-tinted specs, who is petty minded, who is OCD about bathroom sanitation, who got a freebie, who was “a bit menstrual”, who was paid, who got laid and who just wanted to get their review read, their opinion, and experience verified, who’s hungry for the approval of other users?
Forming judgements by aggregating judgements is exhausting, time consuming and usually self defeating. Eventually you just shrug and book anyway based on the price, location and photos.
No one, however well read, or experienced, or educated in the nuances of a thing being reviewed, has a voice any louder than anyone else’s. In fact the loudest voices are the ones that game the system, who know how the machine works, who sock puppet and put the work in rating their own opinions to feature higher on the site. So now we need to search through the 193 Duct Tape reviews to see if we can find someone, anyone, who thinks a bit like us, who might fit the voice of our own echo chamber or, failing that, someone who might have had a duct that actually needed taping.
One day we may look back and realise that “Critic” was the first non-manual job to be entirely wiped out by computers. Not by artificial intelligence, but by the hive mind. And yet, even though we may have had to start thinking like machines to get our judgements heard, programmed by the system to be opinionbots, the critic, however inexpert or unpaid, may also be the last human voice to succumb to the singularity.
Alan Turing proposed that a human might judge Artificial Intelligence successful when he or she fails to tell the difference between a computer’s response and a human one. The flaw though, was not in his understanding of computers, but of humans. The human urge to judge and be critical and superior, would never allow us to admit a failure in our judgement, we love the sound of our own voices too much. So it’ll be our voices, our vicious little opinions and petty judgements, which will be the very last thing the robots wrest from our dead larynxes.
A version of this article first appeared in