Asides,  Books,  Film

The demise of should

This is a difficult post to write, I'm trying to think some stuff through, so if it comes across like I'm a cross between Andrew Keen and Baroness Greenfield, then assume this is because I haven't articulated myself well, and not because I am such a hybrid of bad science and curmudgeon. (If I did I might look something like this:)


(Andrew Keen and Baroness Greenfield morph photo via morphthing)

In general, you will know that I think the internet is GOOD THING. I like it. I spend a lot of time there. If I could drink beer with it, I would. But one should consider that even good things are rarely all good. There are downsides to most things.

One of the downsides it seems to me about the net is the commonly quoted echo chamber effect. That is, we spend time with like minded people, and not listening to different voices. I don't buy this completely, stuff comes across my screen everyday that I didn't know, that challenges me, etc. But what I think the net does do is legitimise everything. In general this has been a good force too – people no longer feel isolated because they are different, they can find others like them. Of course, this can be negative, if you are a rabid racist, you don't have to suffer being told you are wrong by everyone, you can find other nutters online who will share your view.

We probably have an echo chamber continuum that goes something like:

  • Wilful ignorance – these are people who know they are wrong, or at odds with society and deliberately seek out others of a like mind: Creationists, racists, conspiracy theorists, people who think Dan Brown is a good writer. That sort of thing. The point is you have to go out of your way to find similar viewpoints.
  • Accidental ignorance – people who labour under a misapprehension, because their community, network or peers also possess it, or it is a subject they simply don't come across.
  • Lazy tastes – people who are generally aware they could move beyond their comfort zones, but don't.
  • Occasional venturers – this is probably most of us, we do occasionally stretch our beliefs or tastes, but also we enjoy the stuff we know and like.
  • Radical explorers – those who always seek different ideas, and tastes.

My point is not about the first or even second of these categories, but more about the middle – we have seen the demise of any sense of compulsion or quality. There is no more 'should' anymore. Everything is okay. Again, this is largely beneficial to people and society. There is no pressure to say, get married because you feel you 'should' (or live a conventional lifestyle). Saying goodbye to should is one of the great social forces of the 21st century.

But as we wave goodbye to it, we should also ponder what we lose by its demise. The loss of any sense of artistic quality is one aspect which I will miss. The notion of 'quality' in any artistic endeavour took a serious blow with postmodern relativism – everything was valid as an artform. And, again, this has been positive – I like that I don't have to hide my penchant for horror movies and can engage in pretentious discussions about the merits of various 1980s trashy movies with Jim Groom.

But I was always aware that there was more, that one 'should' try and read classics. It was 'should' that led me to Joseph Conrad and Flaubert. Should suggested I try listening to jazz. And should sat me down and made me watch  Nouvelle Vague cinema. All of these have been good things and have pushed my appreciation of cinema, literature and music across genres: that is, I have become a better reader of all novels because I have read Flaubert; and I enjoy Japanese horror because I learnt from French cinema, and so on.

My feeling is that what started with postmodernism has been exacerbated by the net. People's current tastes are always legitimised and there is no compulsion to go further. Thus we have a society that thinks Harry Potter is literature. It's not – maybe (and I am really stretching my maybes here) it's okay as a read, but there is more. And there is more to cinema than comic book adaptations. So, while we might cheer the demise of should in general, we should perhaps mourn the passing of it with regards to society's artistic sensibilities.

But all this is just a vague feeling I have, maybe there's nothing to it.


  • sonja

    Granted that this is tagged as an “aside”; but I’m itching to comment… I fear you’re simply harking back to a fictitious golden yesteryear. Your musing implies that before, say, the internet (or Harry Potter, or the talkies, the radio, the printing press, take your pick), people were more intellectually engrossed than they are now. It assumes that everyone “listened with mother” (?), or quietly retired to the drawing room, played music, painted a liking of their cousin Mathilda, engrossed in the latest translation of Homer, scandalised by Shaw & Wilde. Of course, some people are like that – I too think *I* SHOULD read the classics beyond the hundreds I have already read, but not for any reason that stretches beyond myself, it does not stretch to any other person. I might recommend that they read/ listen to/ watch the classics of course, but nothing is really lost when they don’t. Usefully, when I remember or discover a penchant for Lessing, Milton, Tolstoy, the internet is the grandest library I can wish for!
    Finally, has “should” also made you go beyond the comfort zone of Europe/ the “West”? And no, Jazz does not count (if I like it, it must be middle class & white 🙂 ). Will you be able to appreciate music even if you cannot at all relate it back to a tradition you are familiar with? Etcetera…

  • Martin

    @sonja – I think you are probably right. We always create a false camelot. What brought it to mind was a few things, one of them reading Jonathan Coe’s biography of experimental writer BS Johnson. What amazed me was that ITV used to commission programmes by Johnson – ITV for god’s sake! You simply wouldn’t get that now. And I have the sense that smart people have become lazy in their artistic tastes. You are of course correct to call me out on the limits of my tastes – but my point was not that mine are good, but that it was a sense of knowing there was stuff beyond the popular that intelligent people rated. And I should at least give that a go (for instance it also made me try opera, which I didn’t take to, and that’s fine).

  • Sonja

    i know – I KNOW – how that feeling comes about. But perhaps the fallacy lies in continuing to expect the same quality from the same sources. Perhaps, say, the BBC grows worse, but what if, simultaneously, our own expectations grow, we grow in our expectations? For 15 years I wake up, “religiously” to the Today programme. For 3 years (at least!) its despicably low-brow magazine format has me spitting in the morning. But perhaps not Today has grown crap, but I have grown… up? Grown more discerning? It’s at least a more optimistic assessment.
    The solution must be to seek out the more intelligent “stuff” and to spread it amongst one’s small circle if not beyond. Though I am the queen of it, there’s little worth bemoaning the “dire state of contemporary culture”. After all, we’re having this exchange because of twitter, and you know what grumpy old things think about *that*!
    In any case, it is not important that “smart people have become lazy in their artistic tastes”. The only person’s taste that is your responsibility, is you. So, go see cosi fan tutte. And laugh at the fact that opera is this strange thing: it is at once fun AND boring. At least it is to me. (Unlike jazz, which is only fun, but then you get the jazz bores & they deserve to be shot).

  • Tim Maly

    As a survivor of a Postmodern university education, I’d say that – if anything – the pendulum is beginning to swing in the other direction. We’re moving away from relativism in taste and truth, I think.
    That said, I worry about the echo chamber thing. Maybe I just thing things are getting better because I’m mostly hanging around people I mostly agree with.

  • Martin

    @Sonja – what you say is true, but I wasn’t really arguing that quality was lower, I think there is excellent stuff out there (in music for instance you could argue that the digital revolution has led to more interesting artists being able to record and distribute). Rather it was that people were aware of ‘more’ previously, and even if they didn’t seek it out they knew it was ‘good’ in some artistic sense (like I know opera is good, but maybe not for me). But now I get the sense that this is less true, that people will defend Harry Potter as the literature they want.
    @Tim – I think you are correct to say that relativism has peaked, but I think it has caused a major shift that was, in many ways, liberating. But I do think it’s effects combined with the echo chamber (and the increased sophistication of mass media probably) has caused the demise of (a culturally agreed upon) ‘should’.

  • Mike Johnson

    I was delighted to meet at @trydan last week :-p
    we were chatting about the slow death of craft, looking accusingly towards digital media. He lectures photography, finds it very hard to get people to slow down, s-u-r-v-e-y, and compose a shot. Pardon my clumsy, uninformed philosophising, but digital media recording devices have negated (at least some of) the need for embodied/embrained human knowledge/craft/wisdom. Where _should_ the knowledge reside? Living museums (i.e. older humans) only?
    What about other kinds of knowledge/practice? That BMW vid of the mechanic with headsup specs/audio, replacing a fan manifold, with every step depicted for them in detail. What about your dentist doing this for your root-canal work…? Where _should_ the knowledge reside? Who decides? Why, ‘the masses’, of course. And they’re always “right”… (well, it seemed like that at the time…)
    What about students in Higher Ed? What kind of knowledge _should_ they graduate with? Ah – this is more interesting, because accreditation is where it’s at and Universities hold the keys. Universities can decide where the knowledge resides and what kind too… I wonder how many of them realise that…

  • Colin Milligan

    Thanks for the open and thought provoking post Martin – it is interesting to see an idea being taken through its first stages of development.
    As I read your post, I kept thinking about other media – with TV, radio and in newspapers, we consume what’s put in front of us (out of habit, or just because we like to relax by wathcing tv or reading newspapers) – stuck with someone else’s bland view of what we should be reading (whatever is being pimped by publishers this week) or where we should be eating (as long as it is within a nice drive of London). I’ve certainly not been moved to broaden my worldview by these traditional media any time recently.
    Coincidentally, I see you have just tweeted about Cassetteboy. When thinking about replying to this post before lunch I had in mind that very clip – isn’t the great joy of the Internet the access to/serendipitous discovery of things which are just a little out of the ordinary and that you’d never encounter in other media. I’m sure there are many Apprentice fans who will have viewed that clip and been struck by the technical AND creative skill shown by Cassetteboy- which miught move them to seek out more of the same.
    Thinking back to the recent things I’ve come across, it is interesting to note that they are increasingly coming via Twitter. Despite existing primarily as a twitter-lurker I really see it as a potential game-changer. As social media allows our social circles to grow, I think the diversity of our social circle also increases- yes I share something in common with each of the people I follow (mostly a professional interest), but largely there’s much of their life that I’m now also exposed to.
    At least on the Internet we can connect with others and contribute something back to the collective. We can drive the agenda.
    Already too long a comment, but just to acknolwedge there are big issues here – my use of the Internet probably owes much to the fact that I developed my cultural awareness before the Internet came along – your post may be of more relevance when thinking about our wonderful digital youth. And the whole question of whether the internet encourages shallow understanding and exploration complicates things too. Maybe I need to blog on this myself.

  • Brian

    This sort of writing is the Anti-Keen. A genuine interest in understanding what’s going on goes a long way. So I hope you’ll write more posts like this, we can’t leave these questions in the hands of grandstanders.
    As an aside, this reminded me of a bit of writing about reading from Nick Hornby ( )… I’m enjoying playing what the two of you are saying off against each other:
    “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. I recently had conversations with two friends, both of whom were reading a very long political biography that had appeared in many of 2005’s ‘Books of the Year’ lists. They were struggling. Both of these people are parents–they each, coincidentally, have three children–and both have demanding full-time jobs. And each night, in the few minutes they allowed themselves to read before sleep, they plowed gamely through a few paragraphs about the (very) early years of a major twentieth-century world figure. At the rate of progress they were describing, it would take them many, many months before they finished the book, possibly even decades…The truth is, of course, that neither one of them will ever finish it–or at least, not in this phase of their lives. In the process, though, they will have reinforced a learned association of books with struggle.”
    Hornby later says:
    “If 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… All I know is that you can get very little from a book that is making you weep with the effort of reading it. You won’t remember it, and you’ll learn nothing from it, and you’ll be less likely to choose a book over Big Brother next time you have a choice.”

  • Chris Lott

    I love Hornby, but he’s essentially preaching reading for joy from the position of someone who has already achieved mastery and already developed a pretty comprehensive context for his enjoyment.
    The “should’s” might be a problem, but equal to that problem is a declining lack of ability (of various kinds and for various reasons) to be *able* to enjoy a book.
    Or we could just take the common contemporary approach and redefine reading as essentially any activity where one’s eyes look at something.I’ve literally heard watching television cast as “a new form of reading.”

  • Mike Caulfield

    I have this feeling sometimes, but when I step back and look where I am relative to ten years ago I’m struck more by how much I have challenged my tastes now that things are more open. I’ve become a lot more conscious that I should fill my time up with things that challenge me (and the fact that I can preview, say, music, with no financial risk now makes it easier).
    Looking at your set of points though, I wonder if the thing that ties them altogether is actually the tension between pursuing challenging experiences of quality and being able to socialize around them.
    I’ve gotten into pop-sike music lately, and been pushing myself to really listen more closely to what goes on (and I’m using a blog to do it:
    I would have never had that opportunity to look at this stuff even five years ago. It’s more adventurous and should-minded than I might have been.
    But the thing about great-books-style shoulds is they can be discussed with the people already in our life that we care about, or the people in our blog circle. You get quality and a sort of social currency.
    The tension we face with so much choice is if we wander off into our own desires we end up a little lonely sometimes, some dispersion of culture and experience enriches or network, too much dissolves it.
    I’m not sure I’m getting this out right. I kind of tried to get a bit toward this idea with the idea of cohorts:
    Maybe that’s a place to start….

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