Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The web and the classics -- a bit of a jeremiad

If everybody has 15 minutes of fame, does that mean nobody gets 30? Well, no. But does it mean that there will no longer be "classics" or a "canon"? Of course, these ideas have come in for a lot of challenge over several decades, in part on the ground that they were merely lists of the works of dead white males. But in principle the idea of classics could accommodate that critique -- once we became a more inclusive culture, our lists of classics would evolve accordingly.

But in a world of 15 minutes of fame, these lists may take another kind of hit. They won't disappear, of course. In fact, they'll be (they no doubt already are) instantly available on the web. There'll be a lot of competing lists, but for a somewhat unsettling reason that competition probably won’t be distracting. The reason is the nature of knowledge networks -- in which, so I'm told, a small number of nodes become the focus of a great deal of connection, while many other items go almost or completely unattended (e.g., and most painfully for scholars, unread). That disparity of attention will enable search engines to smoothly take us to the most well- or widely-regarded.

So the lists will remain, and they'll be better -- at least, more inclusive -- than the older versions they replace. But will people care about the items on them in the way they once did?

Some people certainly will. The web lets every enthusiast pursue his or her passion. And really it's never been remotely the case that everyone shared a passion, or even an attraction, to the classics. So here's my question, better phrased: will the degree of attention our culture has paid to the classics decline?

I think the answer has to be yes. Human attention is finite. Multitaskers may be expanding the size of that finite quantity, but they aren't making it infinite. And the point of multitasking seems to be to carry out multiple activities simultaneously by giving each less attention. That’s a workable strategy up to some point, but the news reports (the "papers") are full of stories of people who quickly exceed their own true capacities, such as cellphone-using drivers and even pedestrians.

Another way to put this is to ask why all our screens are so attractive. The answer is partly that they're full of interesting stuff. (I'll come back to this in a moment.) But another answer is that we're the sort of beings who are easily distracted by whatever we find interesting. Being so responsive to changes in our environment must be useful to survival, though I also suspect that the brains we're equipped with are so powerful that they just need more stimulation than many of our actual environments provide. Either way, we – or at least many of us -- are easily distracted. So the more stuff there is to distract us, the more we'll be distracted. What else is the information age but a galaxy of potential distractions? And if we're distracted, then we're not paying as much attention to some short list of important matters -- like "the classics."

Perhaps it’s also important to think about what particular stuff interests us. Obviously we’ve known for a long time that we are mostly not that interested, that much of the time, in the purest abstractions of philosophy. Sex and violence are more up our alley. But the web provides a particularly supple way to learn more about what interests us. So, for example, we now not only know that many people like to watch appalling YouTube videos, but we also know that many people like to watch videos of other people watching the first set of videos – and many people make videos of themselves watching these appalling videos. Whether this behavior is an expression of empathy or of schadenfreude doesn’t much matter for now; my point is just that whatever actually grabs us, the web is remarkably well suited to deliver (virtually, to be sure), and that a whole lot of what actually grabs us is a long ways from the classics. I don’t mean to equate the classics with philosophical exploration either; the classics are classics because they too speak to what actually grabs us. But they generally speak to it in a more complicated and less accessible way, and in a way that inevitably becomes less accessible over time as the worlds of the creator and the audience diverge. Meanwhile, we now have very good and quick fixes available for a click.

So the classics won’t disappear, but I think it is fair to say they will fade. Perhaps that’s not ultimately a bad thing. The existence of “classics” was itself the result of a world in which information and the ability to access it were limited. We have not needed the Medicis to assure the production of art for several centuries (though with the digital challenge to copyright we may yet need patrons again). In the same way, we may not need classics as a keystone of learning. Perhaps we’ll learn to appreciate (and make) our culture in different and freer ways. (So Roger Ebert appears to feel about film critics – thanks to my friend Jon Art for this link.) At any rate, I think we’re all going to find out.

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