“The Waste Land” vs. Boing Boing

I can’t decide if I agree or violently disagree with David Brooks in his latest column.

…there have been three epochs of intellectual affectation. The first, lasting from approximately 1400 to 1965, was the great age of snobbery. Cultural artifacts existed in a hierarchy, with opera and fine art at the top, and stripping at the bottom…

This code died sometime in the late 1960s and was replaced by the code of the Higher Eclectica. The old hierarchy of the arts was dismissed as hopelessly reactionary. Instead, any cultural artifact produced by a member of a colonially oppressed out-group was deemed artistically and intellectually superior….

But on or about June 29, 2007, human character changed. That, of course, was the release date of the first iPhone.

I tend to disagree with Brooks on, oh, nearly everything, but methinks there’s something here. There’s a lament for the old, “refined” version of culture buried in this piece (which is supposed to be “funny”); he seems flabbergasted that our culture obsesses about the means, rather than the fruits, of production. The iPhone (or, more accurately, the techo-cultural change it represents), says Brooks, has turned tastemaking on its head, making those of us that bookmark, aggregate, and share content the thought-leaders and those of us who make the content second-class netizens. (What about those us that do both?)

Take out the linkbaiting references to iPhones and Gizmodo, however, and you’ll see that what Brooks is describing is the gradual democratization of popular culture. To use his example, to be able to quote and dissect “The Waste Land” took an expensive upbringing of fine schools, absorbing literary taste via familial osmosis, and an impressive knowledge of the English language. It wasn’t for the masses, and it wasn’t meant to be.

But networked culture — in whatever form it takes — gives us the chance to move on from T.S. Eliot’s show-offery and to point to those things that we find valuable, deep, and interesting, and to share them with people in our social network.

In 1960, as today, “The Waste Land” was meaningless to most of us lacking an Ivy League education. Yet it sat atop the cultural pyramid, the pinnacle and symbol of higher learning and refinement. Now, a post on Boing Boing about bike seats that give cops “penile numbness” and erectile dysfunction is also meaningless to most of us, but it may be read by half a million people in one day. For some, in order to prove your intellectual credentials, you need to be reading posts like this on Boing Boing.

The truth is, there are a billion other things you could be doing or reading that also bolster your credentials. Most thought-leaders start out by asserting that whatever obscure-but-interesting thing they know about is actually important. Though the network, many of them rise in popularity. Others never do. Either way, this system usually has nothing to do with traditional learning or upbringing but by having something unique and different to say. That seems like a much more natural unfurling of culture than being force-fed cultural treasures by over-educated white men.

I’m not making a qualitative comparison between “The Waste Land” and Boing Boing (though that would be interesting…), but a distinction in the way we receive and transmit meaning and culture. That’s been changing for a long time, and will continue to change, and I’m encouraged by the thought that more of us can become thought leaders by participating, commenting, and posting, rather than by the dumb luck of being born into the right family in the right place at the right time.

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