Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The tyranny of the focus group

Recently we met a rather naive woman weeping over the fate of her book. She had got a contract to write a book of educational materials, and she had assumed that this was due to her strong opinions about what would make a good book. She had a lot of experience in the field, she had thought long and hard about the room for improvement in this particular area, and felt she knew very well what would make a really good book. Her book would be different from all the other books in that particular market, which were all, to a greater or lesser degree, bad.

Then she found out that the plans for the book and the sample chapter had to be given to a series of focus groups - groups of teachers, ordinary teachers with no particular expertise, but teachers representing the vast majority of the market for the book. The feedback was not all positive. Changes had to be made. The book had to become more like all the other books on the market. It had to become more like what was already familiar.

The weeping author was dismayed. She had assumed that the publisher would organize a campaign to persuade potential buyers that this new kind of book was better and should be preferred over the familiar but inferior stuff. Clearly this would spark a debate about the pros and cons of different kinds of books. But it turned out that there was to be no debate and no attempt at persuasion. The focus group would decide, and there could be no questioning the anxieties, prejudices and narrow-minded ideas that doubtless underlay their decision.

Between sobs she described her previous conviction that the free market in goods could also be an arena in which ideas compete with each other, allowing the best to gain ascendance. But if the free market is all about companies looking for the lowest common denominator, there is no hope for a cultural aristocracy (in the good sense of a state in which the best - the aristos - holds sway).

After the sobs died down, what remained was a gnawing sense of the nihilism of what has come to pass - a nihilsm quite different from that of the blue-spectacled Russians, like Sergey Nechaev, but one that still treats all ideas of what is good and true with an indifference that is - to sensitive souls like the naive woman in question - as terrible as anything the nineteenth century nihilists dreamed of.

What hope is there now for a notion of the Good that means more than "that which sells"?

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