Monday, May 26, 2014

Faking Cultural Literacy

This is, unfortunately, so me:

It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them. Instead of watching “Mad Men” or the Super Bowl or the Oscars or a presidential debate, you can simply scroll through someone else’s live-tweeting of it, or read the recaps the next day. Our cultural canon is becoming determined by whatever gets the most clicks.

What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness.
And the way we convey this to others?
It’s not lying, exactly, when we nod knowingly at a cocktail party or over drinks when a colleague mentions a movie or book that we have not actually seen or read, nor even read a review of. There is a very good chance that our conversational partner may herself be simply repeating the mordant observations of someone in her timeline or feed. The entire in-person exchange is built from a few factoids netted in the course of a day’s scanning of iPhone apps.

Whenever anyone, anywhere, mentions anything, we must pretend to know about it. Data has become our currency.  It’s understandable that one party or even both parties in a conversation may have only the faintest idea of what is being talked about. We’re all very busy — busier, if I believe the harried responses (when there are any at all) to most emails I send, than any previous generation. And because we spend so much time staring at our phones and screens, texting and tweeting about how busy we are, we no longer have the time to consume any primary material. We rely instead on the casual observations of our “friends” or the people we “follow.”

Does anyone anywhere ever admit that he or she is completely lost in the conversation? No. We nod and say, “I’ve heard the name,” or “It sounds very familiar,” which usually means we are totally unfamiliar with the subject at hand.
Guilty as charged. I can't tell you how many times I've faked knowledgeability on some cultural reference with a "not sure, but it sounds familiar" or "I've heard the name, absolutely!" and having no idea whatsoever what the conversant was talking about.

As the author goes on to point out, what passes today for conversation is basically summaries of the social media we consume. We have "outsourced our opinions" literally to whatever social media feeds we spend our time reading.

Sad. I'm happy to say I actually read the entire article. And you should too, before someone else tells you what it said and you say "Sounds familiar...I think I read that on a blog post somewhere."

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