Saturday, May 25, 2013

Digital Media and the Decline of Curiosity

Something that has puzzled me for many years is why so many people show so little curiosity about things. I've been thinking that this just sticks out for me because curiosity is a ruling passion of mine. But it has occurred to me that there might be another explanation. My biography is a bit unusual: from birth up until I was twenty years old I lived in an environment that was, from an intellectual and cultural point of view, severely impoverished. I lived on homesteads or in very small towns (pop. circa 800) until I was fifteen, then we moved to a town of fewer than 4000 people. The first time I was in a genuinely rich environment was when I was twenty and went to university where there was a good library boasting around a million volumes. Plus, there was a pretty extensive listening library.

But the point is that up to that time, I lived in an environment where there were no bookstores, just one radio station, one tv station (CBC, and that not until I was nine years old), and one tiny library with, at most, a couple of thousand books. Contrast that with today when virtually every child grows up with the Internet, which is the equivalent of huge numbers of radio and television stations, not to mention an online library of incalculable size. Children now live in a hypercharged information environment.

I suspect that the result of this is a profound lack of curiosity. In fact, what is needed, for simple self-protection, is an active disinterest in most of what you see and hear. You need to protect yourself with cynicism and irony. There is a charming little text symbol for this: tl;dr which means "too long; didn't read". But in my formative years, I was intellectually deprived. Anything I ran across that showed any signs of real intellectual or cultural substance I fell on like a starving man on a tasty meal!

I retain this curiosity to this day. Mind you, I have learned to avoid all forms of broadcast entertainment such as radio and television and only use the Internet because I can control how I encounter the constant flood of information.

I can remember how I cherished the few old, scratchy LPs of classical music I borrowed from a friend in my late teens. They were precious partly because they were few... To this day, whenever I hear the "Unfinished" Symphony of Schubert, I imagine the ghostly ticks and scratchy hiss from the old LP I used to have.

Here is an interesting article that looks at the issue from a different angle: how digital distribution has increased the sheer quantity of scientific error:
Fraud (the principal cause of retractions, which are up roughly tenfold since 1975)  is not a new phenomenon, but digital manipulation and distribution tools have increased the spread and impact of science, both faulty and legitimate, beyond the confines of the ivory tower.
Classical music, like any other manifestation of high culture, needs context, background, exposure to some history. It does not reveal itself on first hearing, like a pop song. Sure, there are pop songs that reveal much more on repeated listenings, but few of them are designed that way--they are meant to make their impact immediately.

To really get into classical music, or Japanese woodcuts, or Russian novels or any other kind of high culture, you need some curiosity. You need to explore a bit, ask some questions.

I've used the phrase "high culture" twice now, which is sure to make some folks squirm. In the name of 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism' all cultures are deemed to be equal so there can't be any such thing as high culture or low culture. It's all just one glorious spectrum of wonderfulness. Ke$ha and Beethoven are on a par aesthetically. Whoops, I used another forbidden word, "aesthetically". As that might lead to implying differences in quality, we really don't want to talk about aesthetics any more.

Sorry for this meandering muttering, but I don't have the energy to do a big analytical post this morning. I just completed 8000 words of program notes for our upcoming chamber music festival. All I really want to do is sit down and listen to a new CD I just got. The complete Beethoven string quartets by the Emerson Quartet. It has just been re-issued in a bargain format for only $24.78 so I couldn't resist.

Well heck, let's listen to the Emerson boys play some Beethoven. Here is the minuet and trio from the Quartet in A major, op. 18 no. 5:

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