Many people feel that the Super Hero is an inherently silly concept. And certainly, many of the genre's conventions — such as the use of strange, skintight costumes — might look silly in Real Life. However, within their own setting, superheroes are usually accepted and admired. Certain characters are so obtuse that even other superheroes view them as — well, dumb. Some people tend to use the derisive name "Super Zeroes" for these.

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At the University of Chicago in the s and early '80s, the mercurial behavioral scientists Robin Hogarth and Hillel Einhorn performed groundbreaking research examining how ostensible experts often make suboptimal judgments. Subsequent studies showed that aggregating the decisions of a group of people outperformed the predictions of individual experts.

The actual accuracy of experts seems secondary to their purpose: to provide guidance. As a Midwestern teenager entering a phase of intensive cultural consumption in the s, I sought out expert opinions in music, television, and film. This expertise came in the form of critics, who I believed had more access to media, earlier access to media, and more experience with the medium that they were covering.

I turned to them for guidance, and I followed their critical advice. Critics—with their extensive access, priority access, and comprehensive experience—provided this exclusive knowledge. Critics led, and I followed. All of this means critics no longer have exclusivity, priority, or even, necessarily, expertise.

Expertise requires that, compared to the average person, one has a deeper understanding of a topic, a more well-researched opinion on the topic, and privileged information on the topic. The ability for anyone with a fast wireless connection to obtain an entire Lou Reed discography or the entire compendium of Get a Life episodes means that anyone can dig deep into a particular body of work.

Music and film piracy means that priority access has become a thing of the past. Less has been said about the transformative power of the Internet to turn us all into critics. Or, as Jay-Z recently put it , "I think reviews have lost a lot of their importance now because of the Internet. I have carefully curated my Internet experience to inform me of the most entertaining movies, TV shows, and songs—not to mention the most interesting scientific articles, the most energy-efficient vacuum cleaner, the most user-friendly Mac-compatible app for making a to-do-list, and the best place in Chicago to eat mirchi ka salan.

I now count on my social network to enlighten me on albums and films that, as a Midwestern teenager, I feared I could only find in the most selective, coastal-elite magazines. And I count on the hive-mind to give me consumer reports far superior to Consumer Reports. Indeed, crowdsourcing is a wonderful tool, but it still fails in a very particular way, which is that any evaluation is swayed by the evaluations that have come before it. A barbershop with a one-star rating on Yelp as its first review is subsequently more likely to accrue more negative reviews—and that same barbershop, were it to receive a four-star rating on Yelp as its first review, would be more likely to accrue more subsequent positive reviews.

In a now-famous experiment, Matt Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts empirically demonstrated this effect in an artificial music market. They allowed people to download various songs and randomly assigned people to see the opinions of others who had downloaded these songs.

Sometimes a particular song was shown to be well-liked by the masses, and in other versions of the study, that same song was shown to be disliked. Regardless of quality, people evaluated the songs they believed to be well-liked positively and the songs they believed to be disliked negatively.

The experimenters initially up-voted some comments and down-voted others at random, and showed that an initial up-vote led to increased subsequent up-voting whereas an initial down-vote increased down-voting. Whereas in a pre-torrented world, reviewers had first access to film, TV, and music, now they must inevitably write their reviews after being exposed to the opinions of the masses who have already consumed, or at least previewed, the object of the review.

When critics were first , their reviews initiated the social influence bias process, but now this process precedes them. Thus, whereas critics used to guide tastes, they often now function as mirrors of public opinion. Cultural critics now have an opportunity to provide a real service by reviving objectivity, and giving people an informed opinion rooted in legitimate and honest contemplation. Everyone can be an expert now, but the best critics were always something different altogether. The music, film, television, writing, and digital diversions that got our staff through the year.

Pacific Standard is looking for a part-time contract editor to help us expand and elevate the profile of our books and culture coverage. New research from Britain finds music lovers are increasingly crossing genres, but they remain divided in their tastes. From toasters to tipples, buyers ceding decisions to outside advisers. The best things our staff read, wore, and binge-watched in the past year. News in Brief. Social Justice. Home Social Justice.


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Whither Cultural Critics?


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