Friday, August 6, 2010

The Cultural Liberation of the Digital Age

At least among academics and other literary types, it's become rather in vogue to turn up one's nose at the Internet and the digital age that seems to be upon us. Nicholas Carr, author of several influential books that I don't think anyone has actually read, has been doing the rounds, warning us that our increasing dependence to computers is changing our brains, killing our attention spans, taking away the capability for sustained rational thought that, well, makes us human. Apparently all these hyperlinks are placing a "little extra cognitive load" on your brain.


Meanwhile, the New York Times has taken to printing articles like this one chronicling this family that seems to be helpless in their addiction to technology. While the tone of the article is so exaggerated it's almost comical (the wife burns cookies twice because she keeps checking Facebook, while the husband sits on the toilet for an hour at a time playing iPhone games), it's not necessarily unique. There have been many articles about technology's dehumanizing functions. It's killing literacy. It's killing our attention spans. It's ruining our communities. It's sucking away our empathy and the ability to communicate face to face with others. None of us know how to use apostrophe's anymore. Et cetera. Et cetera.

I'm not denying that these articles have a point. I'm not a neuroscientist or a cultural theorist, but any idiot can see that technology has had a massive effect on the American lifestyle in the past two decades or so. Our worlds have changed completely, not always for the better, and I think it's a good thing for these authors to investigate what effect, exactly, our ubiquitous contact with the Internet is having on us. Hell, I've written a few pessimistic articles myself about this.

But I think that there's also a lot about the Internet that is very beneficial to society, and a lot that has made our lives a lot better. It's not necessarily going to lead to the technological utopia predicted by 1950s science-fiction authors, but it's hardly going to be an Orwellian nightmare either.

The first thing that helped me realize this was Proms. For those of you not in the know, Proms is a two month long classical music festival in Britain, with performances highlighting music the Baroque era up to the present. For the amateur, it offers a great introduction to the most famous masterpieces of the great composers. For the expert, the massive seventy-six concert schedule means time to delve into some of the lesser known works of the major composers, as well as lesser-known composers who rarely get a chance to shine.

Why do I bring this up? Who has the time or money to go see seventy-six different concerts? Well, the magic of the Internet means that each concert is available for streaming up to 7 days after its initial performance. Not only do you get actual music, but you also get the talks and lectures that come before each performance - thousands of hours of musical appreciation and education for free.

There is something incredibly liberating about this. Genres like classical music and opera are supposedly held captive in the domain of the elite, whose stuffy, overbearing demeanor turns off a lot of people to this sort of thing before they even give it a chance. But the broadcasting of 76 free concerts to the entire world is an amazing thing - the democratization of the fine arts. This is something that would have been hard to pull off in 1995, but nowadays streaming audio and video is commonplace not just on computers, but on smartphones and iPads and the like.

When I was in high school and first getting into classical music, the Internet played an invaluable role. Record stores still existed back then, but the ones in my small hometown had pretty pitiful collections of classical music. Luckily, Amazon.com was an amazing marketplace to browse and buy music, and the reviews of different performances are fascinating to read. I don't think I could have embraced this music nearly as well without the Internet, both in terms of learning about it and in terms of being able to listen to it. There's a lot of criticisms that can be leveled against Amazon. But for those of us living in small towns without limited stock, it's an amazing resource. Even better, it keeps promoting classical music through its amazingly cheap mp3 specials.

Ruth Franklin of The New Republic wrote a pretty good defense of the corporate behemoth. I don't necessarily agree with all her arguments, but she does a good job at pointing out that, despite the criticisms leveled against the company, everyone loves to shop with it. "Before it appeared on the scene, if you lived in a part of the country that happened not to be served by a great independent bookstore," she writes, "you were out of luck when it came to getting books other than bestsellers."

The BBC is a government entity offering up concerts for free, while Amazon is a corporation hellbent on making a buck. But both are great resources, and I think both can be used to spread culture and art that used to be reserved for those lucky enough to live near a major orchestra or a decent record store. There is a certain amount of populism inherent in the idea of the Internet , and this can be used for great effect. I use classical music as an example because that's what I'm the most familiar with, and I often harness the Internet as a tool toward this subject. But I'm sure there are thousands of other subjects in which one can cite how the Internet has spread something to an unprecedented amount of people.

In addition to the sheer amount of media available, there are online communities available to discuss all sorts of subjects. I'm not talking about Facebook or Twitter, the "social communities" that are akin to a bunch of people in a room shouting at each other. But there still are great message boards and email lists out there for smaller communities if you know where to look. As a kid, I used to read these message boards to get recommendations for new fantasy and science-fiction novels to read. Recently, I used another one to discuss the latest Thomas Pynchon novel.

The Internet is not necessarily going to lead to a Golden Age of culture or educate and refine the philistine masses. But I think that it has led to a democratization of culture and the arts - anyone in the world is free to pursue any sort of culture that appeals to them, instead of being bound by mere geographic proximity. There's a lot of ill that the Internet has done, but at the same time I'm thankful that I can access so much wherever I am in this country. It's something to be optimistic about, at least.