Monday, May 18, 2009

Is the Internet Killing Culture?

[The Age of Civilization by Jan Soucek].

I have a confession to make.

I haven't been able to finish reading an entire book in over three months.

My compulsive and ardent participation on the Internet, writing blogs, commenting, publishing poems, and reading others' work, seems to have something to do with this.

Mostly my reading these days is confined to the well-written columns of The New York Times. I am a New York Times enthusiast and reading the newspaper coincides perfectly with my short span of attention.

A couple weeks ago, I grew interested in the phenomenon of "mass amateurism" on the Web and I wanted to investigate it. I asked a couple prominent literary bloggers, Nigel Beale from Nota Bene Books and Andrew Seal, from Blographia Literaria, to write essays for the Arts and Culture Webzine I edit, called "Escape into Life."

In Nigel's essay, he quotes the author Andrew Keen from "The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing our Culture". And while I won't re-quote Keen here because the message is in the title, I would like to respond based on my own experience of the last couple years, and how my behavior has changed in regards to the medium of the Internet.

From college onward, I delved into literature as if it were a contact sport, devouring the classics with fervor and intensity. I majored in English, which gave me somewhat of a background in reading these authors, but I went beyond my studies to read European classics most of which weren't taught in my classes.

I loved French and Russian realism. I relished the imaginative powers, the ability of these great writers to create worlds inside their fiction. My favorite authors were Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola in the French tradition; and Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov in the Russian.

Literary realism became my opium; I seemed to be able to live off of it forever; indulging in these beautiful and convincing worlds. Intoxicated I would spend days in the library reading, losing track of time and forgetting everything that pained me in my trivial life.

The days of literary intoxication may be over, however. I recall them with a sort of nostalgia but I can no longer enter those worlds. I refuse to abandon myself to them; I don't have the patience to read Zola's meticulous story-telling or Tolstoy's epic handling of characters and events.

What has happened since? Have I changed? Have I lost my ability to engage in culture and art?

The Internet has definitely changed the way I read and what I read. But it has also changed my view of myself from a passive receiver of "culture" to an active participant and creator of it.

In many ways, I've become the epitome of the amateur artist on the Web. I publish everything; poetry, essays, novels, even some sketches. And like many bloggers, I bask in the freedom to express my thoughts, my impressions, my art.

I poignantly remember a creative writing college professor once telling me--after I announced my desire to become a professional writer--"You won't publish for another ten years. I've seen the corpses."

And so, now it is with a certain exuberance and defiance that I publish freely on the Web, all with the click of a button.

To me, the proliferation of artistic expression, the videos on YouTube, the online novels, the loads of bad poetry, cannot be equated with a loss or diminishment of culture but instead a replenishment of it. "More artists, more culture," I say--even if the great majority of those artists are naive and unskilled. The individual acts of creativity, that's what's important, and with more people creating, I see the phenomenon of mass amateurism as a boon.

The novel I'm reading now--when I take the time to read--is called, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. While I've lost my attention to read classical literature, my attention seems to be on par with the requirement for contemporary novels and non-fiction. Any casual observer of the novel by Geoff Dyer will recognize that he is no Balzac, no Chekhov, no Flaubert. Contemporary novels are infinitely easier to read than classics, especially the ones that make it on the New York Time's "Bestsellers List".

But I'm glad I have my Geoff Dyer book to read for pleasure, because I can't possibly focus my mind on War and Peace. My level of attention simply will not allow it. I'm still nostalgic for great literary works, and knows well that I still like to buy them, but do I read them whole? No. I can't finish them.

The Internet is a medium of conversation and expression. It is participatory. Reading a whole stack of books by myself does not seem conducive to a lifestyle that clings impulsively to a MacBook throughout the day.

The question then becomes: Is art and literature in the modern age diluted? Is it watered-down literature?

We hear about the death of American poetry, the death of criticism, and the death of the American novel. And increasingly, international audiences are finding it harder to relate to literature in America (see the New York Times article, "Yet Once More a Laurel Not Bestowed").

The Internet may not be entirely responsible for the supposed death of the arts in America, but there is a certain insularity to American prose and poetry that not a lot of international audiences "get" or appreciate. I think too much of contemporary writing is abstract or superficial; it lacks the density of great works of art.

And yet, ironically, my faculties have gone down for appreciating those great works, and I'm more likely to pick up an amusing and mildly thought provoking novel--nothing too serious or intense.

[The Great Illusion by Jan Soucek]

But there is another side to my (subjective) experience on the question of whether the Internet is killing culture. While my dedication and commitment to literature has diminished, my attention to visual art has increased. Escape into Life attempts to merge literature with the arts. My mother was an artist and I have a great admiration for visual expression.

I believe the Internet has in fact expanded my capacity to appreciate and discuss art. Never before have I had so much art to look at and admire, to study and remark on.

With this discovery, I have begun writing illustration art reviews for the Webzine. I take it upon myself to find outstanding illustration artists on the Web, both award-winning and amateur artists, and I write detailed accounts of their work. This practice has definitely enlarged my "culture".

Not only am I writing about artists, but I'm having an exchange with them, developing a social network and fostering relationships with people who share the same interests.

This, I would say, is not an act of "killing culture"; but an act of embracing it, an act of helping it flourish and grow.

One commenter (@TheDarkEngine) writes, "But when 'mass amateurism' is accepted as the norm by the culture at large, it may lose its critical abilities."

TheDarkEngine is right when he says that critical abilities are necessary to judge cultural works. My optimism for capital "C" culture in regards to the Internet is that I believe we can sharpen our critical abilities by discussing which amateur and non-amateur poems, novels, and visual works warrant our attention.

The critical faculty will not "atrophy" (TheDarkEngine's word) if we actively take part in organizing art and criticism on the Web and talk about it. The proliferation of voices must enter some kind of filter and that is the task of educated readers and the artists themselves.

We can point to the success of one body of "amateur" work; which is Wikipedia. Wikipedia proved that amateurs can in fact trump their professional counterparts with the advances of social technology. Old-school critics who defame literary bloggers may underestimate the value of the many over the one. When this essential quality of the Internet gets overlooked, it may appear on the surface that the medium is not producing anything valuable to culture.

The many voices of the Internet is the Internet. The play of educated and non-educated voices, the high and low, the critical and non-critical, this is the essence and to reject the essence is to reject a large portion of human activity at present. Social technology--and all of the Web's manifestations--are becoming inseparable from culture.

The Internet demands some degree of participation from everyone--whether its reading a blog post, commenting on one, or rating that commentator's comment. But everyone can choose their level of participation. Together, the collective efforts of individuals, small web publications, large media outlets, Wikis, forums, social networks, bookmarking sites, determine the shape and trajectory of culture over the Internet.

With each new medium that comes along, some Ivy League professor will exclaim that culture is dying as a result. Culture is not dying; it's transforming in unpredictable ways, unexpected off-shoots, and amazing digressions. The audiences and the consumers of art, and the creators themselves, may not look the same. But who ever said they should?

And who ever said Culture is static?

This question is open for debate in the forums at Escape into Life, "Arts and Culture Webzine" or you may leave your comments below.



piercival said...

Exactly right - whenever culture undergoes transformation there are cries of alarm. Are we losing our way, forsaking our tradition? Perhaps... perhaps not. New paths are being discovered -some will have the curiosity to blaze them while others stand aside and curse the moon.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I don't think the internet is the culprit here. Since the cataclysmic demise of classical education we have literally been living in a new Dark Age - far Darker than the previous one. Without classicism "literature" becomes reduced to fads and constantly shifting "canons". People in India can study classical Sanskrit and/or Tamil, and thereby gain access to a literature that is 2000 years old and still living today. The same is true of classical Chinese, Arabic, and Tibetan.

themarooner said...

Change is feared because we're unaware of what it brings. And in this case the internet has changed the way we interact. It is a global scale of interaction now, and with that a new high tech culture is being born that is much quicker, to-the-point and convenient. We aren't used to this speed. It'll be harder to keep up with becoming a famed writer but remember our audience is much larger now and easier to access.

PWRUIZ said...

What an excellent post. Have forwarded it on to some bloggers for review and response.

The key point I take from this (and which I shall be sharing with others) is the need for us to continue to engage in some form of critical discourse about cultural output - the kind that does not shy away from informed judgement, opinions and comparisons and which is solidly based on our grasp of the past as much as our enjoyment of the present.

It may be a product of or times, but the mere fact that cultural output today is often terse, convenient and rapidly absorbed does not automatically confer on it either social or cultural significance. Time and historical perspective will help sort the wheat from the chaff.

carlomarx said...

such an eloquent argument and, ironically or not, quite well written. it's interesting to note that the internet is its own ecosystem. perhaps the introduction of culture into this environment is the issue more than the reverse. though i don't imagine either is true.

to the point of amateurism, i don't believe it is a threat to culture to have a proliferation of contributors. somehow i don't see a real issue with everyone starting to write or contribute there own oeuvre to the mass airwaves.

as humans we take in 11 million pieces of data per second, but are only conscious of 40 at a given time. given that power to filter i believe we'll do just fine in weeding out what we need or want or are destined to assimilate.

TheDarkEngine said...

Thanks for the mention in this interesting essay. I find your hopes for culture on the internet wildly optimistic; at the same time I hope that you are right. The concerns about the death of culture are not the same as those that accompanied the emergence of ealier media. Before, there was always a filter; someone had to agree to disseminate your art, to give it their imprimateur. Now, anyone anywhere can create art and have it instantly available to everyone else. With it comes the possibility that all art will be seen as equally good, equally valid. I used to see this with authors who had published with a vanity press. Yes, they were published, but with a company that was willing to publish anything. Again, I hope you are write and I am wrong, but we must be cautious. The desire to decentralize critical authority should not mean the destruction of critical standards.

omnipotentseal said...

I would like to add, that the net is not a homogeneous culture, but instead a patchwork of subcultures each adding their own bit to the dialogue. In your editorial you mention you write, talk, and are a member of a subculture of net artists, who are all creating their own works, interacting, and discussing with one another. When one does analyze "art" from the net, one has to view it in the context of that discrete subculture (and that subculture's interactions on and off the net). Essentially, one is commentating on the commentators of that work.


That's a wonderful post there. Loved reading every word of it. :-)

Tom Howe said...

Great post, thought provoking and insightful. What interested me the most was your belief that the internet has permanently disabled your ability to read dense and lengthy prose with any enjoyment.

I was an English lit major way back in the day, even before postmodernism, and had much the same experience as you have with trending away from reading "literary" works. That was before the internet so I attributed it to TV, and my own tendency to pursue ease. Moby Dick was my favorite novel in the lit days -- something I adored passionately. I tried picking it up in later years and couldn't even plow through it.

I gave up on difficult literature for decades, yet now I find myself drawn toward it again.

I think it may be just a phase. Never say never. In twenty years you may find yourself back reading difficult and lengthy classics. Never say never.

carlomarx said...

"I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops." stephen jay gould

i think the filters have been flawed for a while now.

but to DS's point there is clearly a need, an art and a business model in aggregating and editorializing content (news, opinions, etc.) these work towards supplying the "critical standards" which DS alluded to in his comment.

any worthwhile folksonomical approach must have good centralized and decentralized moderation. that's the same on a website or a corporate intranet or a blog. so what's the problem with more content? it only yields more moderators. that should be good for that kind of business.

natural selection and karma and good taste don't seem to be on the chopping block with this new-fangled internet thing. i would agree that the distribution model is going to completely change, but that may be for the best, depending on how much equity you hold in penguin or dutton.

with music, it may be harder to become an ultra-rich rock star. but there's a lot more access to very good music.

there are more and more large news orgs shutting down bureaus. clearly, not good. but we are getting much more, and in some cases, better news from places we have never seen.

local economies, local music and local news orgs are blossoming. in part because of the revenue models of internet companies like craigslist and google, which place such high value on local, contextual advertising.

local and mobile, two of the most upward trends of the next ten years. and seemingly diametrically opposed. yet they are linked. those two seemingly, polar concepts are what won obama the election.

there is a seismic shift occurring in the way that print is distributed and monetized. but i don't think we are going to suffer for it culturally. i think it will have quite the opposite effect.

darkened_jade said...

Fantastic post and really well stated. As someone torn between the old and the new, I frequently find myself having the same discussion. On any given day I can happily read and discuss Shakespeare, Gabriel Garcia Marcez or any written text (including a lot of trash paper back fantasy novels), and then follow that by using the DS, checking messages on twitter, writing a blog, or texting someone. All and all I find the old and the new both have much to offer and while all the new flashy gadgets of the internet are appealing and have their place, the old also has great appeal and much to offer. Finding balance between them is the challenge and for a while I think society is going to sway back and forth between the two, before we finally achieve some sort of equilibrium.

It was great reading your post and your views on this subject. Thanks very much.

Nomar Knight said...

I agree with you in that the internet is not killing culture but in fact, embracing it. However, I wonder...with the degradation of education in our country and the students' desire to utilize this wonderful media source for entertainment purposes only, how can young people sift through a "lower class" of literature when they don't care for the classics? Oh well, at least students are reading something, but are they learning and how is what they chose to learn, enhancing culture?

Lethe said...

I want to thank everyone for responding to my essay. Each of you have added a new angle, a new insight to the discussion and for that I'm grateful.

Let me respond briefly to each person:

piercival: You're right and this is one great "cry of alarm" reverberating through every major institution and media source.

Apuleius: I'm really glad that you bring up the demise of classicism. It's something I didn't even consider in this argument, although I've considered its importance before. Tying the two together is absolutely brilliant. Thank you.

themarooner: Yes, "the internet changes the way we interact" and to that I would add that barriers previously hindered our interactions. Now individuals can interact with major companies and institutions in a social network. As far as culture goes, it's a high-speed culture, that's for sure.

PWRUIZ: Thank you. I stressed the importance of critical discourse for a reason. The only thing that will determine what is noise and what is signal is us, the culture. We need to develop networks to foster critical discussion.

CarloMarx: Thank you. I love your description of the Internet as an "ecosystem". This metaphor helps us to better understand the Internet. It is not a cultural machine, as in the industrial revolution; but instead a habitat for growth.

And I agree, amateurism does not threaten anything. There is room for everyone. Back to the point about critical discourse, it is up to us create screens and filters to understand the mass production on the Internet.

TheDarkEngine: You're the one who helped me understand the necessity of critical standards. Again, the filter is important; but who will create that filter and what will it look like? The Webzine I created acts as a filter in a way. I publish what I think is outstanding work and I don't publish what isn't.

omnipotentialseal: Excellent addition to the discussion. Yes, subcultures form the basis of the Web, which is probably why they are being so incredibly targeted by spammers. This also relates to the "ecosystem" metaphor in which each species lives among other species but also in its own sphere.

HEMRAJ: Thank you. I needed to write this essay to begin to try to understand what is happening all around me/us.

TomeHowe: Thank you. It's true and I think I make it pretty obvious in the essay that I don't read nearly as much as I used to, and definitely not anything that challenges me. I'm glad you could identify with my experience.

CarloMarx: I like what you said about there needing to be a "business model" to aggregate and editorialize content. I think we're starting to see some of this, particularly on popular blogs like Huffington Post and Mashable. But new media has a long way to go.

DarkenedJade: Thank you. Yes, the modern age of information and technology seems to be an age where there are layers upon layers. There are still classical aspects of our society that remain, such as reading the classics, but on top of these layers are old technologies such as television, and newer technologies such as laptops and cellphones. It's quite a mishmash of elements, but at the same time, some of us--and I will say some of us--have found a way to navigate.

NormanKnight: The question of education was something I didn't even bring up. I'm glad you mention it because it has a central importance in this issue of culture. When we (try to) imagine how later generations will cope with the proliferation of new media, the prospect seems pretty bleak. Honestly, I don't know how the young 'uns are going to get on, but you can bet they'll find a way. There's more readily available information right now than at any other point in human history. This seems to me like an advantage to those who have the desire to learn and educate themselves.

Once again, thank you everyone for responding. Your voices have made this experience all the more worthwhile.


Henry said...

Great, great post. I've had the same problem reading fiction - so I ended up starting a book review blog because I knew I'd be able combine active engagement online with reading. I've become a sort of addict of the engagement - which for me is a question of willpower. The buzz of online networking is very alluring.

dpardoewilson said...

Lethe, you are a victim of low signal-to-noise ratio, in both directions, there is too much noise (superfluous etc.) content for you to read, too few people who can find and are right to absorb your own content. Look at your Twitter, you follow so many people you can't follow many, they are as noise to you. We all need to raise our signal-to-noise ratio, then there will be less useless stuff to read, more right people reading your stuff. See my site, for more about this. I do claim to have a solution, but the net has so much content nobody can find me, as relatively few people find and actually listen to you.

Gretta said...

What a great essay with lots to think about! To bring it home, I am an amature author of one published novel that is now on the Internet for all to read without cost. I think it has literary merit, and is enjoyable to read. I would not call it a classic, but it is art as I have created it, and will appeal to some and not to others. The important thing for me is that is has an avenue for people to read and enjoy it if they choose. We need to move away from the 10% of those who feel that they define art; as you say in your article here, we all define art.

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