cornucopia
Image via Sally Oh

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.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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Discussion

24 Thoughts on "Greetings from the Age of Abundance"

It has been said that the speed of information flow has not necessarily increased insight or enlightenment. When the smoke clears, stripping away the persiflage we are reminded of TS Eliot’s reflections on time, wisdom, knowledge. But, perhaps more to the point, we have created Watson who can parse without breaking a sweat while most of us are trying to use our old fashion data gathering/sorting to mine increasingly detritus filled low grade intellectual ore.

What a dark worldview! We now know a great deal more than we did before so insight and enlightenment have indeed increased, in part thanks to the vastly increased speed of information flow. Of course we are also in someone’s middle ages but that is inevitable, given the nature of human progress.

actually, david, I am very optimistic, and agree that we, indeed, have added to our pool of knowledge, seen differently through our selective lens. And it is important that the Internet gives voice to many who, previously, were voiceless.

My concern is that most are like a kid in front of a case of penny candy having just been given a $20 bill clutched in hand. As colleagues have said, with smart tech, what used to take several hours of gathering, sorting and ranking now takes minutes. If we were to return to the original responses and ask ourselves what having an intelligent secretary or staff person pre-sort and evaluate, what would be the time to value factor be if all the efforts listed were consolidated?

We are at a juncture where the dikes channeling the information have broken and we are standing there with buckets and sand bags of an era past

Culture has many dimensions, so it has no single pace. There was a major social revolution in the 1960s and early 70s, but it ended, as revolutions must. Many of the dimensions central to that revolution have changed little since. But then we have the Internet revolution, beginning around 1994, which is a cultural change at least as great as any in history.

So I see no general slowing, just a great variety of movements over time, which is to be expected. Culture change is a bit like rebuilding a ship at sea. It proceeds in pieces, not as a whole, lest the ship sink.

On the movie front, when I look at movies from the 1970s or 80s they seem simple minded. This suggests that movies have changed deeply as well, in the cognitive dimensions.

The 1970s was 40 years ago, the 1980s 30. Compare the difference in films from 1975 (Jaws, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) with the films of 1955 (Guys and Dolls, East of Eden). Now compare this year’s films with those of 1995 (Toy Story, Apollo 13). Which are more similar?

And what was the last big sweeping popular musical movement? Grunge or The boy bands of the early 1990s? Anything since then?

The differences between 1955 and 1975 is precisely the social revolution I referred to (and lived through). Many of the differences are social. However, the cognitive differences between 1975 and today may be just as great.

I do not follow popular music. If all you mean by culture is movies and music then I know almost nothing about that. I am referring to culture as the entirety of how people live, as in cultural anthropology.

By “culture” here I am referring to the creative outputs of society.

And I think you are overrating the 1960s, something common in our Baby Boomer dominated world. Compare the culture of the 1930s to the 1950s, the 1900s to the 1920s. Would either be more similar than a comparison of today and 1995?

There has been an explosion of creative output since 1995, thanks to the Internet. In the last ten years we have seen blogs, personal websites (Facebook), YouTube, etc. In the decade before that we had websites, which are really hyperlinked books (hence the term webpage).

Perhaps, but why has that explosion resulted in a slowdown in other creative endeavors? Is everyone so busy writing for their web pages that they don’t have the time to revolutionize music, fashion, art, etc?

You seem to have missed the point of the Internet revolution. For all I know music, fashion and art have been revolutionized, but in a decentralized fashion. Lady drummers for example. What is gone is centralized revolution, governed by centralized directors, and good riddance. But then, perhaps you have reviewed the billion or so instances, to determine the pace of progress, which I have not.

And you seem to have missed the point of what I have written. If 10 people try something new, and no one else is aware of it or adopts it, it can hardly be called a part of “popular” culture. Popular, mainstream culture still exists, whether there are small pockets of outliers or not (and realistically, those pockets have always existed). And yet, pre-1990s, that same popular culture went through large, sweeping changes and a continuous stream of new styles, where now it has ceased to do so.

A more interesting idea is that where we used to be unaware as small, subcultures developed, we are now able to put them under the microscope even as they reach the embryonic stage. So instead of everyone ignoring the music in Seattle or Athens, GA long enough to allow a new style to emerge, the attention paid immediately to any burgeoning scene ruins it before it can truly begin.

And as for female drummers being an absolutely new phenomenon, Mo Tucker, Karen Carpenter, Sandy West, Gina Schock, Debbi Petersen, Palmolive, Georgia Hubley, Sheila E and Viola Smith would beg to differ.

When you consider that our parents in the 1960s were confidently predicting that rock ‘n’ roll was just a passing fad, guess what? They were hugely wrong. Our kids today are going to Rolling Stones concerts, after all.

One example of a musical/cultural phenomenon that could not have happened before the Internet is the rapid growth of female drummers. There has now been an annual “Hit Like a Girl” contest (Google that phrase) online that draws submissions from all over the world (45 countries in the last iteration) and has both a panel of expert judges and public voting to determine winners in two categories, under 18 and 18 and over, based on 3-minutes video submissions. This contest has encouraged many girls who were previous discouraged from trying this “male” instrument to do so, and the results have been pretty amazing. I urge you to view the videos of this past year’s winners to see how accomplished these female drummers are. Artists like Beyonce have supported this movement, and a few years back she toured the world with an all-female band of virtuoso musicians, many of them classically trained.

A nice example Sandy. One can easily imagine that the rise in diversity of cultural output has created a corresponding decrease in mass followings, which might be interpreted as a slowing of progress, when the opposite is the fact.

Note too that increased communication and increased creativity can be synergistic. Back in the 1960s I used to go to Carnegie Library to listen to mountain music. Got shushed repeatedly for singing along. Now it is on YouTube, going global. Check out “I wish I was a mole in the ground.”

If that were true, we’d see a fracturing of the market, yet today’s movies continue to set attendance records. Though sales have fallen off due to illegal downloading, I’d assume that more people are listening to pop music like Taylor Swift and Adele than listened to the hits of past years. Given the increased levels of communication and awareness, if there were small pockets of cultural revolutions going on, wouldn’t we be more aware of them, rather than less? While the internet has given voice to a near infinite number of niches, at the same time it has in many ways homogenized culture.

But the music business has definitely changed, and artists are adapting, as witness Taylor Swift’s decision to keep her music off certain sites. It now seems that the music companies are less willing to take risks on unknown artists and develop them over a period of time. Instead, they pick up artists who have already developed a worldwide following, as Justin Bieber did through YouTube.

Which again points to a slowing of culture. Perhaps there’s an increased aversion to financial risk underlying some of it, the “upheavals” mentioned in Andersen’s article above.

How about all the movies reviewed in the Friday NYTimes, every week? I’ve never compared that sample to the 1995, or 1975, or 1955 samples, but I’d bet dollars to donuts there’s many more, with much more diversity than even 20 years ago. There seems to be a lot of movies for niche audiences, gay, foreign, etc.–can’t that be considered a “fracturing of the market”?

Maybe you’re saying, David, that this is a period of digestion. We’re all so busy processing volume. I think this is in itself a hugely important development that suggests changes we’re only beginning to understand. Volume of “news” has not made for a more informed citizenry, but that rather at least here in the US for a more divided (and often extraordinarily misinformed) one. As many of you have written about, the key will be discernment– how will we know to select and prioritize source A over source B (whether that’s news, entertainment, a housing material–or an art form)?

Divided, yes, but not misinformed. The diversity has always been there but now it is visible and vocal. “Misinformed” is typically an epithet thrown by one side against another in a disagreement. The throwing is often mutual. In fact it is a good semantic marker of a deep disagreement on a social scale.

Also, the sheer diversity and volume of index items on this post make it a favorite of the year!

A quick look shows our most common tags:
Publishing
Open Access
Academic Publishing
Peer Review
Google

Though one can also get a gauge on my mindset when I edit each post by the tags. A few favorites from a random look at our tags:
absurd hypothetical questions (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/tag/absurd-hypothetical-questions/)
patting oneself on the back (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/tag/patting-oneself-on-the-back/)
1977 Firebird Espirit (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/tag/1977-pontiac-firebird-esprit/)
lots of 9’s (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/tag/lots-of-9s/)
magnetic defecation (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/tag/magnetic-defecation/)
unicorn tears (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/tag/unicorn-tears/)

Good piece! Thanks!
“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”.
This should be the case, indeed.
Many research project are/should be taken from ‘good’ review papers.
Review articles make much more sense when they are critical enough with new ideas or future directions than routine, superficial, salami-slice research papers, which are often without any ‘real impact’ but just to spend money and get further money to test null hypotheses and so on!
Millions of dollars are spent annually on very basic research topics without necessarily any real outputs.
Personally, I also find review articles more digest than most research papers. Review articles are so important and should be critical enough to help advancing science in the right direction.
Review papers require more intellectual works and experience than research papers that are merely ‘kitchen recipes’.
I think it is time to take ‘break’ for research papers and focus on good, critical reviews (Re-views) in all research fields so we can see real and true impacts of all what has been done so far and what remain to be done.
Without comprehensive and thoughtful reviews (with fresh Re-views, re-analyse etc.,), we will be further overwhelmed in 2016 with new abundant, salami, tasteless, worthless research papers…

Actually there is a good reason why many papers have to go unread. As Derek de Solla Price discovered back in the 1950’s, publication on a specific scientific issue exhibits an S-curve, along the lines of the logistic equation. 

So when research takes off the number of papers being produced grows rapidly, probably quickly reaching the point where not all can be read by the researchers involved. As this growth continues the topic becomes saturated and research rapidly ceases, all the important questions having been answered. It is likely that few of these latter day papers are read, but they are still useful, in creating the saturation. There is no evidence of poor research in this model.

(Price was the father of scientometrics.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_J._de_Solla_Price)

Also, the global expenditures on basic research are in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

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