Though an a difficult expectation because of the sheer amount of information available, Walter Lippmann’s “omnicompetent citizen” may not be quite a distant thought has he imagined it when writing “The Phantom Public” in 1925. When discussing “The Googlization of Everything” in class, the line of conversation leading to how information-dependent our society is led me to think more critically about how that impacts our expectations of other people. The ease by which people can come by information is astounding, and all it takes is a cell phone or a computer to Google a topic and learn the basics. This endangers Lippmann’s denial of the omnicompetent citizen because, in a sense, we are reaching for the edges of being able to know everything.
Lippmann came up in our discussion on “Political Observatories, Databases and News in the Emerging Ecology of Public Information” in reference to the unrealistic expectations that citizens have of journalists. This is namely that they should know and be able to report of a vast number of topics with ease, experience and knowledge that is really unattainable without these political observatories. I don’t think that it’s much of a leap to then expand the dangers of that onto how the collective journalistic ability to report on every topic sets an unrealistic expectation on politicians. We expect this same omnipotence from one man or woman and his/her advisors as we do from an army of journalists.
Though of course a politician should be knowledgeable and capable of forming enlightened opinions on a variety of topics, the overall expectation of them is more critical than that of the expectations of journalists. Americans expect a candidate who knows everything for many reasons, of course, but one is because we ourselves have had a taste of this omniscience, and if we can know it, so should they.
Another note that we made during our class discussion on Shudson’s piece was that technologies don’t cause massive social change on their own; other factors have to be at play. I think in this situation, the massive social change is the growth of expectations that we have of our candidates, both intellectually and socially, and this is enhanced by the role of the Internet and, to bring it back, Google. I looked in a book by Richard Sher entitled The Modern Political Campaign: Mudslinging, Bombast and the Vitality of American Politics where he talks about the new American “supercandidate” who has “to deal with things political; if we locate and identify this person of virtue, we can leave politics in his or her capable hands, knowing things will be well handled.” This is the aforementioned “other factor at play”. We as citizens have increased our expectations of politicians and their ability to perform as a solo-act, and that social change combined with Google as a technology to provide information has created a danger in politics.
The omnicompetent person may not exist as a singular person, but as journalists are an all-knowing force when combined, so are the American people. We have access to massive amounts of information, which is beneficial to our participation in democracy, but detrimental to the expectations we then place on the political system. The omnicompetent citizen is becoming more real in the form of individual people as well as in the form of the collective group.
Scher, Richard K. The Modern Political Campaign Mudslinging, Bombast, and the Vitality of American Politics. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. Print.
Schudson, Michael. “Political Observatories, Databases & News in the Emerging Ecology of Public Information.” Daedalus: 100-09. Print.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything: (and Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: U of California, 2011. Print.