It’s August, and along with the bronzing rays of sun come the inevitable schmoozing estival get-togethers. It’s a ritual that has come back in force after two years of small-group pandemic huddles in yards and on beaches, and this conviviality comes coupled with that most modern of games, what might be dubbed Cultural Minesweeper.
“Have you read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow?” “No, but have you read The Overstory?” “Oh, I’ve heard that’s good. Did you watch the Game of Thrones prequel?” “I gave up on HBO Max last year, but have you seen The Crown, what did you think?” “It won a lot of awards, it’s on my list. What did you think of Jordan Peele’s new movie Nope?” “I loved Get Out, I should see it.”
In a shattered cultural milieu, the ricochets can bounce back and forth for a strained period: my record is about 20 before I surrendered to the sweeping currents of ephemeral but quality content. Perhaps one of this century’s greatest delights is happening upon a party guest that has read, listened, watched, or thought about anything in common with one’s self.
One cause is that we have transitioned more of our consumption patterns to social media, hampering conversational citations. Even in 2022 (and let’s deduct the Trump Twitter years), no one references tweets, Facebook posts, or TikTok videos as part of a dinner party conversation. Occasionally, you will get asked about some “insanely funny” video, but its ephemerality means that it almost never lands well, nor does it offer status to the interrogator.
This pattern continues, with the United Kingdom’s media regulator noting
Ofcom’s News consumption in the UK 2021/22 report shows that, for the first time, Instagram is the most popular news source among teenagers used by nearly three in ten in 2022 (29%). TikTok and YouTube follow closely behind, used by 28% of youngsters to follow news.
BBC One and BBC Two – historically the most popular news sources among teens – have been knocked off top spot down to fifth place. Around a quarter of teens (24%) use these channels for news in 2022, compared to nearly half (45%) just five years ago.
The more obvious cause is the deluge of content (see “Easternization of media
” a few months ago for more), and to put it into precise terms, the inability of any cultural artifact to generate an audience. House of the Dragon
, the new Game of Thrones
prequel (a description I have to include for the precise reason that audiences are shattered!) garnered nearly 10 million domestic viewers
for its debut last weekend. That’s the best series launch in HBO history, but a reminder of just how small audiences have become: even a lavishly funded production
, building on the legacy of one of the most popular shows in history
, barely receives glances from a percentage point or two of the viewing public.
Now, as a life-long pseud, I learned years ago how to float in an implied familiarity with an author or their work, without telling an outright lie. I have a shell like a Galapagos Tortoise when challenged on this sort of thing. But I have noticed that such libertine manners are fast becoming normalised.
His sardonic view is to take that libertine manner and enjoy the libertine nature of modern society:
Don’t feel ashamed. The sad truth is that we are becoming an illiterate society. As a pastime, books are as dead as theatre was fifty years ago. What little reading we do now is rarely in longer form than you are currently struggling through — I wonder if you have already scrolled down to see how much more of this you need endure? Even when we do buy an actual book, the data is in on our chance of finishing it, and it’s not pretty.
I don’t agree that we are becoming an illiterate society, but we are dissolving a collective literacy into an atomistic model of independent thinking. The irony is that some of the most interesting people who do think and ponder many of the sublime works that our culture produces are stuck not talking with others. Perhaps religious sects have it figured out: an intentional canon read by all that forms the basis for all further discourse. Criticism is layered on a bedrock of culture, so there’s at least an agreed set of material being brought into contention.
A few months ago in “Consensus functions
,” I wrote about the convergence and divergence of society when it comes to facts, theories and politics:
Society, meanwhile, doesn’t have all those layers of consensus to build upon for new decisions. There’s no algorithmic blockchain ensuring that the basic facts of reality are cross-validated, or the scientific method to ensure that evidence is considered with appropriate context. Consensus is recursive, and without better consensus functions around values and tradeoffs, it’s impossible for a nation to make decisions.
Culture is a form of consensus, collections of intellectual intangibles designed to connect each of us together. Our divergence of taste ultimately means a divergence of culture, and the increasing need to translate across impermeable barriers of media. There’s no translator for my taste I can bring to a dinner party, and alas, that means the game of Cultural Minesweeper begins again. Thank god everyone in Brooklyn over 30 watched The Wire.