A curmudgeon returns

Part 2 in my curmudgeon series (don't worry, after this, it's all utopia again). A couple of posts back I mused that "we have seen the demise of any sense of compulsion or quality. There is no more 'should' anymore. Everything is okay." I pondered whether this started with post-modernism and was reinforced by the internet as echo-chamber.

Ain't no echo chamber

I've been thinking more about it, largely thanks to the excellent comments on that post. On reflection I feel that the echo-chamber effect is probably overplayed. Certainly we tend to talk to like-minded people – this is human nature. Sometimes it is a result of preference: I don't need to talk to fascists to know I disagree with them. But it is also a fundamental aspect of what we term community: in academic circles, theoretical physicists don't advance their science by hanging around with people who they have to explain Newton's second law of motion to – they need to assume a base level of knowledge to be able to have the discussions they need.

Even so, my experience of being online is that my network is far more diverse than my face to face one. There is a great deal of variation in the people in my twitter network, without going to extremes. In this sense it is the opposite of an echo-chamber (a diversity chamber?) and almost every day something will come across my path that I wouldn't have encountered otherwise.


But I still feel that, particularly in relation to artistic tastes, the lack of compulsion I mentioned is prevalent in society. I could be wrong about this, and I have no empirical evidence (indeed, what form would such evidence take?). But humour me, and let's pretend I'm not just a grumpy old man, and there's something in it. If it isn't a result of the echo-chamber, maybe it is a result of what I shall, with a frightening lack of imagination, term 'always-right-ism'. We have had two mantras in recent years: The customer is always right, and more recently, the user is always right.

So, us internet users in particular are immersed in an environment where we are repeatedly told we are always right. If we don't get how to use a site immediately, give up, because it's the designer's fault. This is largely true, but coming on the back of the customer is always right attitude, it may start to pervade other areas of our lives.

In education we have seen the customer attitude tainting the student-staff relationship. The student cannot be always right (they wouldn't be a student then) and so the customer approach only works to an extent.

So my hypothesis is that a similar stance has begun to influence people's artistic choices. You struggled to read a book? It's the author's fault. Didn't like a piece of music? They should try and be more accessible. Didn't understand a piece of art? They are being wilfully obtuse. Think Lord of the Rings is the best thing written? That's fine, the rest of the country seems to agree.


Brian Lamb posted a comment on my last piece, quoting Nick Hornby who was bemoaning the notion that reading should be hard:

"One of
the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads
that books should be hard work, and that unless they’re hard work,
they’re not doing us any good…
reading is to survive as a leisure activity…then we have to promote the
joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits…please, if you’re
reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else"

I have a lot of sympathy with this view. As Nathaniel Hawthorne said 'easy reading is damn hard writing.' The curse of making things difficult to read runs through academia – I have supervised PhD students who feel that if it isn't verbose and almost impenetrable, then it isn't academic. I have spent a lot of my time trying to do the opposite (hence this blog) – trying to say interesting things in an accessible manner.

So I don't think books should necessarily be hard to read (often that's just a sign of poor writing), but you can stretch yourself in terms of the narrative style, subject matter, characterisation, structure, etc. Not every book you read has to be written simplistically, with a straightforward narrative. I recently read Jonathan Coe's excellent biography of the experimental novelist BS Johnson, and I have a lot of sympathy with Coe's stance: he likes books with plot and narrative (the Dickens tradition) but also admires those who experiment with the form. He says of Johnson, he wrote as though it mattered, and I think by extension, if we occasionally subject ourselves to art work that is created by people who thinks it matters, then maybe it matters to us a bit more too.


  1. I’ve been thinking around this in regards to community. One of the things that I realized early on is that standards and responsibilities ARE one of the ways in which communities are defined. It is easy, in a sense, to be a network of people who happen to be particle physicists… it is something else to be in a community of same working together to do something. At that point, some things are right for that context and some things are not. The separation between being in and not being in the community is often the very choice of how you’ve done something.
    (I’ve just realized i’ve pulled the dreaded post modern move again)
    You ‘should’ read hard books or act politely or accept something given the context. Your act of ‘should-ing’ (to borrow a neologism model i saw recently) is an act of self definition and, possibly, community membership.

  2. I think you’re under-estimating the danger of the echo chamber effect. Your point about not engaging with fascists is funny, but consider the more realistic example of two groups that are nearly as polarized– strong democrats and strong republicans. When it comes to a lack of engagement with– and understanding of– the other side, both groups fail miserably. There’s a stunning lack of diversity in those networks and a strong resistance to stepping outside the communities of narcissism each belong to.
    I’m not convinced that “web 2.0 teachers” (or whatever term/phrase one prefers– you know what I’m talking about) are, as a community, a whole lot better. If only for the simple reason that those communities are typically rife with inattentive and contemptuous dismissal of ideas outside their own unwittingly narrow boxes and participants in them are seemingly unaware that there is a VAST group out there that isn’t the directly oppositional group but is largely excluded and not engaged or listened to.
    I don’t disagree that online networks can be quite diverse. Nor do I disagree that affinity is the glue binding members in strong communities and that it isn’t a bad thing (most of the time). But I do think healthy, diverse networks don’t happen automatically, and it seems to me that being more diverse than a physically bound traditional community we would have “otherwise” is a pretty low bar.
    (I commented on reading in your first post, but sometimes reading *is* hard, and from the work involved we can derive commensurately greater rewards. I’m not so sure that the “reading shouldn’t be work” argument isn’t really a leveling argument in disguise… one regarding worth, quality and aesthetics.
    but I wonder why reading is so often seen as only a first-order activity, like taking a bath, rather than a higher-order activity akin to playing a musical instrument, with the musical instrument being our ears and listening ability, both of which benefit from attention and practice and involve more than just enjoyment?)

  3. @Dave – you’re allowed to pull the postmodern trick, because I pulled the ‘community’ one. My point was that sometimes we accuse people of not actively being diverse and of being part of an echo-chamber, but if we flip that and call it a community of practice, then we see that commonality is a glue we require.
    @Chris – yes, I’d agree. Our online community is for instance generally liberal, greenish, pro-tech, etc. Obviously I think these positions are ‘right’, but we can refuse to hear mild objections. But, having said that I do think (my online network at least) is quite questioning, and the blogosphere does facilitate anti-arguments if they are well stated.
    I agree re reading – people don’t see it as something they need to work at (beyond basic literacy). This is part of the always-right-ism mindset.

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