The vast majority of us, twenty-five years ago(ish) bought (more or less) the same newspapers, rented the same movies from the video store, watched network TV, sat still through 30 second commercials we couldn’t fast forward, looked at people’s faces when we talked, and we watched music videos. The radio ensured a kind of a local culture existed, and everyone (more or less) saw the same movies, news, and TV; they read the same books, and, like all people throughout the history of time, created a shared culture through the things that they did and said.
Now obviously there are many types of cultures, and for the purposes of what I am saying here today, when I talk about culture, I mean American Mass Culture and how it has gone from a mono-culture at the turn of the century, to the cell phone created masturbatory niche-culture we currently live in, that cannot and does not function well enough to maintain democracy.
The most important thing about the mono-culture, I submit, was that it wasn’t optional and you could write back to it. The main function of a Mass Culture that I can see is that you define yourself against it, because that is how change happens.
We still have a Mass Culture, and it is still influential, but it is neutered by the ability of people to curate their own content, and to have the ability to make all media consumption a hyper-specific highly personal experience.
Here are a couple of ways this is bad:
- You have a terrible idea. You say it, and your friends make fun of you. You learn that what you thought was actually pretty dumb, because you trust your friends and you are willing to learn from them. Alternately, you are afterwards able to find a lot of people you don’t know who think the exact same thing you do. Suddenly, you doubt your friends, and as time goes on you become alienated from them because you are now a complete idiot, but through your ability to come into contact with other idiots, your terrible ideas thrive. You monetize them and spread them to other people
- The President is objectively terrible, but you can’t effectively criticize him because the only conceivable audience for a criticism of the President already agrees with you, since people can now choose their own content and will never choose things that make them uncomfortable on purpose.
People have always made everything for a target audience, but the difference between then and now was that people outside the target audience were always forced, through limited choices, into engaging with things they would not have actively chosen to engage with. This gave us a set of common facts that we used to take for granted.
Tell me the last time you listened to a song you hated, or watched a movie you weren’t 99% sure you were going to like before you turned it on.
There are many, many positives about not wasting your time on things you hate or are not interested in. This isn’t some nostalgic callback to a better time. Mass Culture is gross. Always has been. But when the mainstream is the act of tuning out the mainstream, what you get is roughly half the population refusing to believe things that are true because they don’t feel like it.
Almost everything that exists – mediawise – culturewise – is consumed only by the people it was made for. In a lot of ways, this is better. If you don’t need a “hit” in the old 1990s sense and scope of the word, and you can actually make money due to your built in hyper-specific audience, you might get a chance to make something you wouldn’t otherwise get to make.
Only problem is that you’re just giving people what they want, and you aren’t challenging them. Without challenging your audience, you’re giving them infotainment, not news; entertainment, not art. Something can only be subversive if it is being viewed by the very people you are hoping to subvert. A message is only as good as the number of minds it changes.
When Mass Culture goes from a mono-culture to a niche-based culture, there is no way to fight back or rebel because, at least in general, the only people who will hear what you’re saying already agree with it. Experimental art today is consumed only by people who seek out experimental art on purpose, making it a failure before it’s even conceived. Nothing is ever truly experimental if it’s not seen within the context of what is the mainstream, and if there isn’t a mainstream well then nothing is experimental because ideas only have power if they are ideas to people, as opposed to confirmations of what they already think, or of their taste.
You don’t get Nirvana if Kurt Cobain wasn’t bored and apathetic towards the corporate and obsequious soft-rock of FM radio of the day, and you certainly can’t change the world, let alone improve it, if you’re only speaking to people that already agree with you. This cuts both ways too, it’s not just about creating art or ideas, it’s about consuming and engaging with them i.e If you just spend all your time enjoying only things you are predisposed to enjoy and/or agree with, then you aren’t being challenged and if you aren’t being challenged how can you really engage with something? It’s like how you don’t just like rock and roll music, you like idea of rebellion, and pissing off squares/yuppies. AC/DC is good, but AC/DC is mostly good if you hate Disco and New Wave. The Strokes blow your mind because how in the fuck is Matchbox Twenty popular?
All of us, every single one of us, even the most media savvy and intellectual, we are, when left to our own devices, only going to choose things that we know we are going to like. We forget that going to Blockbuster when everything was already rented out forced us to rent hail-Mary long-shots we’d never choose on purpose but that sometimes turned out to be real gems. We forget the value of all of us knowing all the words to songs we absolutely hate and would never put on.
Maybe getting what we want all the time and not having to deal with the vapidness of a mono culture that used to pervade every aspect of our lives doesn’t sound so bad, but what makes it insidious beyond my ability to describe or convey, is that if people don’t have to listen to, and confront ideas and arguments that they don’t like, aren’t interested in, are made uncomfortable by, or are otherwise distressed because of hearing, then nothing can change and nothing can get done.
What made David Letterman or Guns N’ Roses dangerous wasn’t so much what they said/did but that they had captive audiences of people who were not their fans. Your fans are in on the joke. You can’t be dangerous in a niche-based culture. You also can’t think, argue, or have a democracy. You definitely have less empathy. It’s debatable if you can even have art. And if you have no art, you have no conversation and your politics will get scary really fast.
Today’s culture is a bunch of scared losers trying not to get fired for accidentally committing a hate crime, while they create harmless and safe click-bait to make money on, and then everyone else doing their own thing for like five people.
Any critics are haters. Anyone who doesn’t agree with you is mean. Two percent of the loudest, whiniest, self-important Twitter users seem to dictate a large portion of the conversation, usually in a way so un-nuanced and lacking in context that it makes early 2000s era Cable News seem like a beacon in the darkness.
Instead of engaging in ideas, we use them as clubs to beat each other with. Being condescending or making fun of something to people who already agree with you is funny at home with some friends, but in the context of doing it for an audience that specifically chose to “follow you” is a form of masturbation that is contemptible. This kind of mockery isn’t so bad if you’re making fun of flat-earthers or whatever, but when it is the main form of discourse that occurs whenever people step outside of their niches and interact with non-like-minded people, its obviously not conductive to any kind of understanding or mind changing.
There are things that are very wrong and fucked up about the world that we live in, but we can’t even begin to tackle the big ticket items if we can’t agree on fundamental facts, and if we don’t have a common culture to measure ourselves against and to ensure that we interact with people who don’t share our same exact views and beliefs, then we will never fix anything and we’ll all be just jerking off until the abyss takes us.
So how do we get back to this ideal mono-culture? We don’t. The only option for accomplishing such a feat would involve the kind of censorship even fascists would think twice about. What we have to do is come up with a series of small initiatives that do the work the mono-culture used to do for us – namely get enough correct (ish) information to enough people to make sure that democracy can thrive.
We could outlaw recommendation algorithms. We could get rid of the like button. We could better police the pirating of intellectual property, and we could fund local news stations and papers. We could improve education and pay investigative reporters like professional athletes. We could concentrate on propagating the simple idea that we all have bad ideas until we know better and that it’s OK, even respectable, mature and dignified to change your mind when you get new information.
But everyone who cares already knows all of those ideas. The whole problem here is about getting information to people who are not only not getting it, but don’t care about the fact that they aren’t getting it and never will.
The great thing about democracy, and as I see it, the main reason for optimism, is that you only need a small percentage of people to be informed and active in the process to make it work. Half the people won’t vote and probably half the people who do wouldn’t ever change their party no matter the time or media or culture of choice.
That’s why this problem isn’t insurmountable. We don’t need to get everyone paying attention to the same things, we just need more of the people than are currently doing it.
And maybe it wouldn’t be that hard to accomplish. People act on incentives so they just need to be incentivized to watch local news, to read local papers. They need to have an incentive to get their news from a reputable company vs Facebook. Give people a reason to buy a newspaper subscription, or to go to theatre even.
A smart government might even enact a program that pays or refunds people for staying off their phones. I don’t know, I don’t think I’m going to solve this one right now, but I do think that we should probably try to work on this problem a bit, because we no longer have a mono-culture to do the work for us – we need to cross pollinate some niches and get people talking again. Most people aren’t stupid, they just more or less absorb whatever beliefs their culture foists upon them. Today, for a lot of people, that is just a lot of dumb things they sort of thought might be true echoed back to them until it seems like anyone who disagrees with them is a monster.
Telling people what they want to hear is like giving people candy for dinner, and its fun if you like being popular, but if we don’t come up with a way to make people eat their vegetables we are going to get scurvy, at the very least.