90% of Everything is Crud

Although there is some disagreement about whether the final word should be “crap,” Sturgeon’s Revelation says that “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”

In context, Sturgeon was defending science fiction against the claims of highbrow critics – by demonstrating the obvious but often overlooked fact that simply showing bad examples of a given genre does not damn the genre as a whole.

For example, the fact that I can find lazily architected, poorly designed, and miserably coded open source software (and one certainly can) does not mean open source itself is inherently flawed as a model. (The same being true, of course, for closed or proprietary source software – there may be problems with either model, but the mere existence of crap doesn’t prove the existence of those problems, let alone demonstrate that the problems inevitably lead to crap.)

I was reminded of Sturgeon’s Rrevelation in reading Andrew McAfee’s Wising Up about Dumbing Down, in which he takes on the sometimes unspoken, sometimes quite explicit fear that this whole inter-web thing is making us all stupid:

The question is, is this development to be welcomed or decried? The decriers most common worry is one of dumbing down—that Web 2.0 is yielding a sea of bad online content that threatens to drown the good.

It didn’t take Web 2.0 to have this conversation, of course. My first dose of the “spend too long reading X and you will begin to worry about the intelligence of the general population” came from flame-wars on Slashdot, and before that Usenet, and before that BBS systems (and before that, High School). Spend a few hours on YouTube, or MySpace, and tell me you don’t start to worry about the future of the planet. (Maybe this only works if you’re over 30? Over 35?).

You’ll find some gems, of course – but you’ll also find a heck of a lot of crud.

As others have commented on McAfee’s blog, the same arguments were made about the broadening of access to knowledge accorded by movable type (this one, not this one).

We seem doomed to be perpetually excited about the new, more democratic (you still, after all, have to be online) media and scared to death that it will make us dumber.