And so we draw an end to 2015 in The Scholarly Kitchen. We’re off for the holidays and will return in early 2016 (unless of course, something interesting happens in the interim and one of our Chefs can’t resist writing about it). One of the joys of the end of the year is digging through “best of” lists, and NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast does a nice job of wrapping up the year in music (the best album is clearly, in my opinion, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit). During the podcast, the NPR commentators were all surprised to realize the very small number of times they’ve actually listened to most of the year’s best music. Simply put, there’s more music available than ever, and seemingly less time to hear it.
It’s a subject we wrote about last week, the struggle in finding the time to keep up with the world, both professionally and personally. The NPR folks suggest that we’re now moving into a different way of interacting with music, treating each album more like a film, something you sit through and enjoy once or twice, and then move on. We live in an age of abundance, and indeed this is changing the way we create and experience the creativity of others.
In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards talks about the Rolling Stones as coming from a culture of deprivation. A bunch of kids in early 1960s London loved American Blues music, but had little access to it. They were forced, if they wanted to hear and experience the Blues, to make it themselves. Filtered through their lives, which were very different than those of the typical Blues musician, something new was created. Nowadays, Keith would have been able to watch a near limitless supply of videos of Muddy Waters on YouTube, satisfying that itch without having to create something of his own.
This near unlimited access to everything is certainly having an effect on the creative arts. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s being made today is worse than the past, just different. Author and raconteur John Hodgman describes the current generation as having limitless access to the entire history of culture, and freely taking up different works and styles in a manner that is freed from the previously established cultural or historical meaning of those pieces. This is often confusing and/or infuriating to older generations — don’t you realize what that band/painting/style of clothing means? This free-form cultural appropriation can lead to fascinating new works, but (as described by cultural critic David Rees) often falls into the trap of mistaking making a cultural reference with making culture.
Despite the increased quantity, one thing that’s certainly happened is a slowing of culture. As a child in the 1970s, the 1950s world of Happy Days and Grease seemed endlessly far away. Now think back 20 years to the mid-1990s and the clothes, hairstyles and music aren’t all that different from what we have in 2015.
Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.
Constant, immediate access to the past has obliterated the idea of anything being “dated”. In the article linked above, Kurt Andersen suggests that the reason our culture has come to a stop is because we’re overloaded on other fronts, upheavals in the world of tech, geopolitics and economics. Humans can only deal with so much “new” so we’re clinging to the familiar where we can.
It’s unclear what effect all of this is having on academic research. Certainly most of science is incremental, and with the notion of “standing on the shoulders of giants“, the process of a continuing stream of sequels is already ingrained in academic culture. But the overwhelming flood of new research papers is clearly having an impact. Back when I was a practicing scientist, one often heard older professors lamenting their students’ unwillingness to engage with the primary literature. Surely there’s even more reliance now on review articles than ever before and one assumes their value to the research community has greatly increased. Perhaps there’s an interesting bibliometric project to be done to verify whether this is true.
So my prediction for 2016 can be boiled down to a single word: more. In 2016 you will have more access to more information than ever before, and likely more pressure on the finite amount of time you have to cope with that information. 2016 will be a leap year, but I suspect the additional 24 hours may not be enough for us to catch up. The value of curation will continue to become increasingly vital, and we will need editors and publishers, librarians and peer reviewers (both pre- and post-publication), trusted networks, expertise and filtering mechanisms, more than ever.
In the spirit of the familiar and comfortable for the holidays, I’ll leave you with the Pogues’ “A Fairytale of New York”, performed here by David Johansen, Bill Murray and Jenny Lewis. See you in 2016.