About superficiality or deepness of pop culture
Every time great changes or peculiar innovations related to communication media involving speedily (historically speaking) a vast part of population, the probability to assist to a debate on their dangerous effects and consequent pros and cons discussion rises. As Umberto Eco admirably indicated in an essay dedicated to pop culture (1964), the phenomenon relays on a consolidated logics in which apocalyptic and integrated face each others. On a side there is people look at new uses and practices as the advent of “Barbarian”, on the other side people read them as signs and proofs of a more viable ways to tackle otherwise untreatable issues or flourish suppressed sensibility with more effective and expressive savoir.
Sometimes clashes can even occupy newspaper front pages involving different personalities that have to face complex processes shrinking them in little lines. It happened lastly in Italian newspaper «Il Sole 24 ore», but even in USA and England with «New York Times», «Wall Street Journal», and «Guardian». Guided from the typical pragmatism characterized Anglo-American culture, the terms of debate can be also reduced to stupidity and smartness. So, Nicholas Carr, journalist and technologist, underlines the decadence of our mind used to delegate its faculties to new media, while Clay Shirky, brilliant scholar of new communication, speaks of huge opportunities for our individual and collective creativity and smartness. Of course, two contenders are particularly prepared on theme having just now published two books with indicative titles. In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age Shirky shows how we can now really release the vast accumulation of intellectual and creative skills switching from passivity that old media dictated. Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains recalls expressively “shallows”, namely the regime of marginality in which our mind, going away from the “deepness” of water, is bogging with the risk of deforming behind the sparkling applications of Net.
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis
Yet, any attempt to reduce complexity through dualistic set-up can be easily dismount by a third discussant. In the article «Mind Over Mass Media» popular neuroscientist Steven Pinker plays easy to place in a “right angle” his arguments, without citing the famous (and much sophisticated argued) claims of Fedro by Plato about the menace of writing for human mind (400 b. C.). Pinker says that «new forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber. So too with electronic technologies. PowerPoint, we’re told, is reducing discourse to bullet points. Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths. Twitter is shrinking our attention spans.
But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline. The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously». In fact, hypothesizing a such linear and arbitrary effects, besides, without a serious check, is not only superficial but even primitive despite of evident intention to address scientific results. « The effects of consuming electronic media are also likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings». The fact that chances of distraction increase is indubitable. But temptations have always accompanied human life requiring strong strategies to defend our integrity. On the other side, every serious skill deserves commitment and continuous efforts. We dedicate specific educational structures to support them adsorbing continuous attention to keep them well-aligned with world evolutions. «The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart».
Despite thematic compression, this kind of debates is positive. The tacit fears come out but, also with the help of the online/offline intersections, discussions bring up them, sometimes dismounting false beliefs. Nevertheless, if somebody tries to better deep the topic, discussions expand creating some problems for blog and newspaper formats. At the end of a recent article on «Guardian», journalist and media expert John Naughton seems to excuse himself for the length of writing, an inevitable result if we face issues «in the round». Unfortunately, we have many limits to understand a such important and pervasive phenomenon needing long-term reflections and researches. Naughton remembers that «almost every big question about the network’s long-term implications the only rational answer is the one famously given by Mao Zedong’s foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, when asked  about the significance of the French Revolution : “It’s too early to say”».
Moreover, Naughton invites us to doubt of traditional media narratives because being interested to depict a bad representation of digital revolution. They admit some functional utilities but, at the same time, launch arrows about every kinds of danger: plagiarizing, stupidity, abusing, industry destructions, stalking, and so on. But «if the internet is such a disaster, how come 27% of the world’s population (or about 1.8 billion people) use it happily every day, while billions more are desperate to get access to it?». Despite his briefness, Naughton has to dwell advising how to maintain a critical spirit and more equilibrate ideas about new media. That is: have an historical view; see the web as a part of a much greater phenomenon (internet); see destructive effects as opportunities not a bug; thinking in terms of ecosystem more than economy; became convinced that complexity is new reality; see network as the new computer; appreciate the participatory philosophy of new media; get used to manage the pleasures and dangerous technologies consent; register that intellectual property regime is no longer fit new systems and, overall, our age.
Mass communication and modernity
Although we remained on the more utilitarian side, and even maintaining a low profile, matter is quite complicate and counter-intuitive. In fact, a complete view would involve other decisive dimensions. We should heavily enter into dynamics and products generated by “mass communication” (that, as these debates show, we still hardly consider as “cultural” matter), then into its relationships with new ways of producing, working, dwelling, associating, consuming, travelling, expressing, etc. In short, we should return on characteristics we assumed and developed as modern citizens. Here it is possible to find the origin of question about what is culture and how it is created, a doubt arose from “worrisome” successes of a series of “minor” arts started to defy – fed from interests/passions/miseries implicit in the real and industrious lives of millions people – hierarchies, works, and aesthetics legitimated by holders of so-called “high” cultures.
At the beginning of Sixty, another famous sociologist, Edgar Morin, wrote an important essay, L’esprit du temps (1962). Morin inquired the role of industrialization of «images and dreams» that runs on press, telex, movies, tapes, radio and tv broadcasting, shaping, conquering and feeding, by «loved goods», our surrendering «souls», so rising a huge amount of meanings, myths, stories made available for our common life.
People read Alberto Abruzzese’s studies, an other anticipatory sociologist particular sensitive to phenomenon of communication named as “marginal”, and its underlined individual and collective imaginaries and mass consumptions – see Forme estetiche e società di massa (1973), La grande scimmia. Mostri, vampiri, automi, mutanti. L’immaginario collettivo dalla letteratura al cinema e all’informazione (1979) – know his caustic and articulated comments related to intellectual barriers such researches face. Yet, he thinks that such kind of disdain hides quite badly the very reason of adversity. That is, the huge difficulty of analysing such expressive forms, above all when people lack specific passions, another obstacle, along with efforts and multidisciplinary skills that this kind of study requires, to check (using not randomly the words of philosopher Georg Simmel -1858-1918) the «deepness of surface».
Now, it’s time to link us to the title of my article. Jazz music will help us (differently) on the matter. To be clear, jazz music as cultural artefact as intended (in 1948!) by American John A. Kouwenhoven, author of a passionate and mythic book aimed to demonstrate how American pop cultures and applicative arts are not inferior but sophisticated cultural objects. The excerpt from Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization still shows superbly what we have said above and, although the specific genre, his analysis remains a great gift for all music fans (in the same period, Adorno, a philosopher with a specific “classic” music skill, dedicates to jazz some problematic and very indecipherable works …).
You can directly read “Stone, Steel, and Jazz” online here.
Abruzzese, A., 1973, Forme estetiche e società di massa, Venezia, Marsilio, 2001.
Abruzzese, A., 1979, La grande scimmia. Mostri, vampiri, automi, mutanti. L’immaginario collettivo dalla letteratura al cinema e all’informazione, Roma, Sossella, 2008.
Carr, N., 2010, “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?“, in Wall Street Journal, 5/6.
Carr, N., 2010, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, New York, Norton & Company.
Eco, U., 1964, Apocalittici e integrati, Milano, Bompiani.
Kouwenhoven, J. A., 1948, Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization, Morgantown, PA, Sullivan Press, 2007.
Morin, E., 1962, L’esprit du temps, Paris, Grasset.
Naughton, J., 2010, “The internet: Everything you ever need to know“, in Guardian, 20/6.
Pinker, S., 2010, “Mind Over Mass Media“, in New York Times, 10/6.
Shirky, C., 2010, “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?“, Wall Street Journal, 4/6.
Shirky, C., 2010, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, New York, Penguin.