Mass Culture 2.0

A prominent librarian utters dire warnings about new media. Scott McLemee hits the books.

June 20, 2007
 

This month, Encyclopedia Britannica’s blog is serializing a commentary on the cultural effects of Web 2.0. The author, Michael Gorman, is dean of library services at California State University at Fresno and a former president of the American Library Association.

About two years ago, Gorman published a memorable essay in Library Journal. In it, he referred to “the Blog People,” expressing doubt that they were “in the habit of sustained reading of complex texts.” The immediate occasion for this remark was the public reception of one of Gorman’s own complex texts, about which uncomplimentary things had been said by bloggers (some of them, in fact, being his colleagues in the library world). “It is entirely possible,” he continued, “that their intellectual needs are met by an accumulation of random facts and paragraphs.”

There were other zingers of the same general sort. And so it has not escaped notice, much of it sardonic, that his most recent effort to win friends and influence people is taking place at a blog. His Britannica series consists of three chapters, each in two parts. Something of the flavor of the whole work may be gleaned from the phrases heading up its various segments. So far, “The Sleep of Reason” and “The Siren Song of the Internet” have been published, and may be consulted here. The final portion, “Jabberwiki,” will run next week.

A precis, then. Gorman points out that the public now has instantaneous access to a chaos of “information,” broadly defined -- an abundance that is ill-sorted and atomized, possessing no very consistent degree of reliability. People believe everything they read, then they go on talk radio and regurgitate it. They believe that Paris, France is named after Paris Hilton.

Plagiarism is on the rise. Intellectual property is not safe. Students do not grasp the possibility that a thing may be known and yet not digitized. They hear about books as they do about the Pilgrims, without ever meeting one.

Also, Wikipedia is bad. Maybe not any given entry, just on principle: The whole concept is dubious.

The legacy of humanist culture smoulders in ruins, pulverized by PlayStation missiles. Trendy professors encourage their students to use Google and be “screen potatoes,” which they presumably would not do otherwise. The capacity for rational thought is disappearing.

Yet we must preserve the dignity and authority of genuine expertise, somehow. After reading and rereading Gorman's work in manuscript a number of times over the past few weeks, I am still at a loss to say just how that is supposed to happen.

Such is the gist of what Michael Gorman has to say. (I condense his points with tongue somewhat in cheek, perhaps, but accurately.) You, dear reader, may even have thought some of the same things yourself, from time to time. It would be surprising if you had not.

Gorman’s jeremiad rests upon a stark contrast. On the one hand, there are mindless proponents of digital boosterism. "Jimmy Wales and his ilk" come in for a shellacking, for example. On the other hand, there are heroic defenders of serious literacy and informed authority. We might as well call them the neo-Luddite quasi-Mandarins. (In the words of Theodore Adorno: “The cultural critic can hardly avoid the imputation that he has the culture which culture lacks.”)

The contrast is striking, and it makes for an exciting apocalyptic showdown. But I'm afraid that it can be difficult to suspend disbelief. In reality, the cultural landscape does not always look like a battleground between the forces of good and evil. Most of us are wandering in the broad, unruly twilight zone between Utopia and the Inferno.

Established ways of organizing and disseminating knowledge and ideas are mutating. The patterns starting to emerge are, as yet, quite unstable. In some cases (the obvious example, and the focus for much of Gorman’s anguish, being Wikipedia), the weaknesses are closely connected to the strengths. We maneuver as best we can -- aware that everything is still very much in flux, by no means certain what is coming next.

But no such ambiguity colors the scenario we find in Gorman's commentary.For the digital boosters, the problems will all repair themselves over time. For the neo-Luddite quasi-Mandarins, by contrast, the new-media matrix is a catastrophic force so devastating that its effects may well contaminate human consciousness for centuries to come.

“There is a present danger,” writes Gorman, “that we are ‘educating’ a generation of intellectual sluggards incapable of moving beyond the Internet and of interacting with, and learning from, the myriad of texts created by human minds over the millenia and perhaps found only in those distant archives and dusty file cabinets full of treasures unknown. What a dreary, flat, uninteresting world we will create if we succumb to that danger!”

He is full of high sentence, like J. Alfred Prufrock. But beneath it all, one finds a sense of cultural history combining one part idyllic idealization with two parts status anxiety. Gorman only appears to be facing hard questions about the new digital order. Actually he is just echoing debates on “mass society” from five or six decades ago.

So let us go, then, you and I -- friends, as we are, of dusty pre-digital cultural literacy -- into the library stacks. Let us locate a bound volume of Sewanee Review from 1957 and open it to read “Daydreams and Nightmares: Reflections on the Criticism of Mass Culture” by Edward Shils. The same text may be found in Shils’s collection The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1972 -- a volume not yet absorbed by Google Books.

Shils, a social theorist who taught at U of C until his death in 1995, was not anyone's idea of a trend-hopping hipster. He exhibited no reluctance about distinguishing between what he called “superior or refined culture” (defined by “the acute penetration and coherence of its perceptions, the subtlety and wealth of its expressed feeling”) and the rest of the stuff circulating in any given society.

But Shils was also very critical of the assumptions behind the discussions then under way on the menacing rise of mass culture. He thought that the tone of the arguments often tended to be melodramatic -- not to mention terribly self-aggrandizing for the intellectuals who indulged in them.

According to the critics of "mass society," writes Shils, it was occupied by a new kind of human being: "He is standardized, ridden with anxiety, perpetually in a state of ‘exacerbated’ unrest, his life ‘emptied of meaning’ and ‘trivialized,’ ‘alienated from his past, from his community, and possibly from himself,’ cretinized and brutalized.”

All the words and phrases put in quotation marks by Shils were drawn from then-contemporary discussions of cultural trends. But replace the term “mass” with “digital” (or “new media”) and this essay from 50 years ago will seem quite current.

“The mass-produced nature of his culture,” as Shils goes on to write, “which is necessary if he and his kind are to be satisfied in sufficient quantity and cheapness, prevents him from developing his taste and intelligence.”

By contrast, the world before the advent of mass society (or of digital culture, perhaps) was elegant and rich and complex, or at least stable. The cultural products of “this legendary time,” in Shils’s skeptical account, “were vitally integrated into everyday life, the artist was aware of his function, man was in a state of reposeful self-possession.... Nothing factitious or meretricious existed.”

And respect for cultural authority was entrenched and almost automatic. As Shils puts it, “The educated classes were genuinely educated, and, despite the rigors of a fundamentally exploitative society, religious faith was geniune, artistic taste was elevated, and important problems were thought about with true sincerity.”

To repeat, Shils himself does not believe this; but such attitudes were actually pretty common in some circles. As the art critic Harold Rosenberg (like Shils a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago) once put it: "Too much reflection on the 'degradation of modern man' leads the oddest people to put on the air of feudal aristocrats."

Glimmers from that golden age occasionally flash through in Gorman’s commentary. By his account, the dynamic of new media (or “mass culture 2.0,” as we should perhaps call it) tends to create a hive mind that is intrinsically thoughtless and prone to deep confusion. But sound standards and admirable practices in research were normative, back in the days before there were search engines to confuse the issue.

“The structures of scholarship and learning,” writes Gorman, “are based on respect for individuality and the authentic expression of individual personalities. The person who creates knowledge or literature matters as much as the knowledge or the literature itself.”

That zesty scholarly individualism of yore had a positive effect on prose: “Good clear writing is more than a vehicle for conveying knowledge and information -- it is an authentic expression of human personality. Bad writing is, all too often, the outward manifestation of inward confusion and lack of clarity, as is bad organization or the lack of organization.” (The latter unhappy qualities being fostered, alas, by our point-and-click culture.)

Unfortunately such fond notions do not long survive careful consideration. They are unhistorical. The idea that an “authentic expression of individual personality” was necessary or desirable qualities in a scholarly text would have been quite suspect, not so long ago. Erudition is in some cases a matter of subordinating personality to established norms of learning.

And the belief that "true literacy" demands, in Gorman's words "the ability to express complex ideas in clear prose" has seldom been honored except in the breach. The problem is not of digital vintage. When Nietzsche made a sarcastic comment on German philosophers “who muddy the water, to make it seem deep,” the most high-tech gizmo at his disposal was a typewriter.

What is bothersome about Gorman’s intervention isn't the mood of irritation with the changes now under way. Many of us indulge that temper on occasion. Nor is it even that Gorman insists that cultural authority and respect for expertise be restored and enforced -- without letting us in on the secret of how this is to be accomplished.

No, what seems particularly off-putting are the moments when the author seems to imply that everybody else in the world is wittingly engaged in making things worse.

Educational institutions are responding to “the digital tsunami,” he writes, by “abandoning the fundamental values of learning that have obtained in Western societies since classical Greece.” That fine legacy (evidently homogenous from Plato to NATO) is being destroyed by “the collective pretense that the established criteria of learning -- notably literacy and intelligence -- are dilutable.”

“True literacy," he complains "...is being equated with ill-defined concepts such as ‘visual literacy,’ ‘computer literacy,’ and ‘21st-century literacies’ as if they could make up for illiteracy and a-literacy.... The same goes for the theories of different ‘intelligences.’ Intelligence is the ability to think quickly and logically, to absorb new ideas and to incorporate them into existing knowledge, to express ideas clearly in speech and writing -- in short, to learn and grow in understanding. Intelligence, an essential component of success in the educational process, is partly a gift and partly the result of work and training. There is no substitute for it academically, and it is very important that it be nurtured, encouraged, and rewarded.”

The tone of Gorman’s remedial lecture implies that educators now devote the better part of their day to teaching students to shove pencils up their nose while Googling for pornography. I do not believe this to be the case. (It would be bad, of course, if it were.)

But the idea that new forms of media require training in new kinds of literacy hardly counts as an evasion of the obligation to cultivate critical intelligence. Today the work of acquiring knowledge on a given subject often includes the burden of evaluating digital material. Gorman may pine for the good old days -- back when literacy and critical intelligence were capacities to be exercised only upon artifacts made of paper and ink. So be it. But let’s not pretend that such nostalgia is anything but escapism at best.

What really bothers the neo-Luddite quasi-Mandarin is not the rise of digitality, as such. The problem actually comes from “the diminished sacredness of authority," as Edward Shils once put it, "the reduction in the awe it evokes and in the charisma attributed to it.”

But it's not that all cultural authority or critical intelligence, as such, are vanishing. Rather, new kinds are taking shape. The resulting situation is difficult and sometimes unpleasant. But it is not exactly new. Such wrenching moments have come repeatedly over the past 500 years, and muddling through the turmoil does not seem to be getting any easier.

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