The perils and promise of clickable culture

In an essay for The Guardian, Anne Helen Petersen, the former senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, contemplates the consequences of spending the pandemic stuck at home, consuming an overload of television, film, music, books and more.

“Wading through the streaming menus felt akin to babysitting hundreds of small children, all of them clawing at me, desperate for my attention,” Petersen writes:

You can make a pretty convincing case that cultural overload has been a thing ever since the widespread dissemination of recordings, movies and broadcasts began a century ago – or, taking a longer view, since the spread of literacy, invention of movable type and opening of book shops and circulating libraries.

Culture at the click of a mouse or tap on a screen is a much newer, overwhelming thing. The quantity of culture-on-demand – highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow, furrowed brow – has grown exponentially in recent years, and time on our hands during pandemic isolation has compounded its effects.

At the same time, guidance in consuming culture has become an all-bets-are-off proposition. The old gate-keepers are mostly gone. Everybody’s a critic, and anybody can launch a website, podcast or YouTube/TikTok/whatever’s-next channel. In time, you can find reliable guides; or you can just say, “To hell with them” (being one of them, I should say “us”), and become a do-it-yourself curator. Either way, you’ll endure cultural overload getting there.

The easy cure for overload isn’t culturally healthy. At a certain age – 40, let’s say – you know what you like and tend to stick with it, re-watching favorite TV shows and movies, re-reading favorite books, listening to the music you grew up with, tuning in to long-trusted channels. Maybe you’ll try new offerings that, according to some reliable source of guidance (or, God help us, algorithm), may resemble your old favorites. You’re in a feedback loop, comfortable but constricted. Your perspective is more then than now.

The easiest way out of this loop is to graze, to discover new things by sampling episodes, trailers, tracks and chapters. That’s time-consuming, much of the time wasted because most of what’s on offer won’t be worth your time. Young people have (or make) time to waste (or experiment, or explore), which goes a long way toward explaining why cultural innovations usually come from the young and initially appeal to the young.

The good news is that cultural overload can lead to a golden age. The European Renaissance didn’t happen until people were exposed to art and ideas that weren’t previously accessible, then built upon that newly discovered stuff. American music didn’t become distinctively “American” until recordings and radio circulated songs and dances and instruments previously heard only in isolated subcultures, and musicians began to absorb and apply those styles and techniques.

Clickable culture could usher in a renaissance. It’s going to take time, though, for creators to break through the clutter and consumers to sort through the results.

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