The MySpace Set And The Fly-Fishing Set

A discussion of class, technology and access to culture? If you wanted me to write a TAS post, you could’ve just asked.

Ross wrote a great post on how our endlessly connected lives make it so hard to sit down and read a book, and its implications on class and access to culture, quoting a very touching post by our own Ayjay on Clay Shirky’s techno-optimist vision and his own upbringing. Our own Matt Frost, inexplicably not on TAS, has his own take at the great Ricochet here where he quotes the tremendous Paul Graham on keeping attention and focus.

But I want to go back to Alan:

… to get to the heart of the matter that I’ve been discussing in the previous two posts: I doubt that Clay Shirky writes lolcat captions. It would be a waste of his time, wouldn’t it? He has better things to do, doesn’t he? After all, as his Wikipedia bio shows, this is a guy who has spent his whole adult life in culturally elite institutions — where, let me add, is just where he ought to be, given his sheer smarts, his lively imagination, and his intellectual ambition.

But when a guy like that says to millions of other people, “You folks just go ahead and make your lolcats and add stuff to your MySpace pages; we all have our own contributions to make, however small they might be, to the collective knowledge” — isn’t there something deeply condescending about that? Isn’t the implication quite strong that people should content themselves with their jokes and status updates because they really aren’t capable of anything more demanding?

Which, I think, accounts for my excessive annoyance at Shirky’s line of thought: I come from the lolcats-and-MySpace classes. But because lolcats and MySpace didn’t exist when I was growing up, and because my parents happened to be readers, I was able to assemble — largely by myself, because my education up through high school was poor at best — a framework of intellectual possibility that I was ultimately able to pursue and inherit.

Ross adds:

And if the best way to escape the gravitational pull of instant, disposable online content and communication is to physically escape the world of excellent cell phone reception and high-speed internet service, then doesn’t this compound the problem for the young Alan Jacobses of the future? Yes, escape and vacation have always been luxury goods, but since the dawn of mass literacy, deep reading has been a possibility for everyone, rich and working-class and poor alike. Yes, most people who grew up in Jacobs’ circumstances didn’t read their way into broader intellectual vistas — but some of them did, and any of them could. Whereas in today’s world of wall-to-wall communications, escaping what Nicholas Carr calls “the shallows” requires not only a lively curiosity and an appetite for self-improvement but also heroic acts of self-control — or else the advantages of a vacation house in upstate New York, which is wonderful if you can afford it, but useless if you can’t.

As TAS’s Techno-Optimist-in-Residence, I feel compelled to respond in Shirky’s defense. I think there’s a misunderstanding here: while Shirky can sound Marie-Antoinettish (“let them eat lolcats!”), I think his overarching point is different.

What Shirky says, I think — or at least what I think — is that the MySpace and lolcats sphere of the internet is useful not necessarily (or not only) in itself but as a gateway drug to a culture of consuming and producing content. Content that, like content through all of human history, will be 99% dreck and 1% genius, the only difference between now and the 19th (or 9th) century being that most of the dreck (though certainly not all, and certainly large bits of the genius) weren’t published because of the limits of technology.

What Shirky says (or at least what I believe) is that MySpace and lolcats make you more likely not less to go on, through serendipitous link-wanderings, to read, say, The American Scene, which in turn makes you more likely to read, say, Dos Passos. And because lolcats and MySpace are participative — you don’t just consume content, you create it —, these people are also more likely to write interesting things. Because they’re already writing every day. And I think it’s potentially equally Marie-Antoinettish to respond “Well, the kind of people who read lolcats aren’t going to want to read real culture!” Says who? Why not? Because they’re part of the lolcats-and-MySpace set?

A time where I am particularly tempted to commit aggravated assault is when I’m at the comicbooks section of a bookstore, and a well-to-do mother, all Burberry’s and pearls, says to her child “Fine, I’ll buy you a comicbook, but after that I’m getting you a real book!” First of all lady, comicbooks, are real books. But most of all, how is your kid going to learn to love reading if you don’t let him read stuff that he loves?

Does reading comicbooks make someone less likely to love reading stories on paper, and to go on to read “real” books? I would wager it makes them more likely to do so! More likely to go from Spider-Man to a highbrow graphic novel, and from there to the kind of literature which is taught in colleges. Each is a gateway drug to the next step.

The great contemporary French writer (and teacher) Daniel Pennac writes of the formidable own goal of parents who say to their children “You get to watch TV for X hours but only after you’ve read Y pages!” Thereby implicitly but implacably embedding in their minds the belief that TV is pleasant and reading is a chore (which is often how those same parents, though they would deny it, tend to view it themselves). Parents should have the balls to say “All right, fine, you can read your book, but only for two hours, and after that you have to go on the internet”!

I don’t come from the MySpace and lolcats set. My parents weren’t always affluent, but they were always stereotypically overclass in their embrace of book learnin’. And this for a good reason.

My grandfather (my birth father’s father) was born to a factory worker at a time and in a milieu when male children were expected to start working full time around age 14. Which he did, at night, because it was the only way his father would allow him to continue going to school. He went on to earn a doctorate at the Sorbonne and become a university professor. The first book he owned as a child, he literally pulled out of a trash can.

I find it simply impossible to believe that for a kid like that, with a knack and a desire for learning, the internet would have made it harder, not easier, for him to get access to culture. In what world does Google and Wikipedia and, yes, lolcats and MySpace, make it harder to access culture than fishing books out of garbage? (There’s your metaphor for the internet.)

Now of course, some might respond, but the point is that your grandfather had a craving for learning and culture and books, but for kids today that envy is dulled and even erased by the deluge of digital drivel they are made to gorge on. And that only children of an overclass that already places an emphasis on traditional culture (as an aside: really? do they?) get enough shielding from the TVwebs to get a chance to develop that affinity for more highbrow culture.

And again, I would say that I just find this not convincing at all, precisely because of the gateway drug argument I made above. If children’s books and comicbooks can lead into “real” books, then why shouldn’t MySpace and lolcats? I’m open to counterintuitive ideas but I cannot build a reasoning that starts with “willingly reads and writes some words all day” and ends with “less likely to embrace highbrow culture”.

Is every member of the MySpace generation going to become Alan Jacobses? (First of all, who knows, the MySpace generation is young still.) But second of all (very sadly!) probably not. But did every kid who started school at the same time as my grandfather grow up to his full potential?

It’s like the old joke about the two guys running from an angry bear (“It’s no use, we’ll never be able to outrun it!” “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you!”). Technology doesn’t have to produce a perfect outcome to be an improvement, it just has to produce an outcome which is less disastrous than the one that preceded it. (How’s that for a tagline?)

If I am a techno-optimist it is not in the sense of believing that technology will always and uniformly produce Great Things (that would be techno-utopianism, I guess). But it is in the sense of believing that technology produces frameworks and incentives that increase the likelihood of people doing good things, while relatively decreasing (i.e. increasing at a lower rate) the likelihood of people doing bad things.

And this is exactly what I think MySpace and lolcats do for access to culture.