An intriguing passage from a terrific essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education…
What’s not asked in the review and the interview and the profile is whether a King book is worth writing or worth reading. It seems that no one anymore has the wherewithal to say that reading a King novel is a major waste of time. No chance. If people want to read it, if they get pleasure from it, then it must be good. What other standard is there?
Media no longer seek to shape taste. They do not try to educate the public. And this is so in part because no one seems to know what literary and cultural education would consist of. What does make a book great, anyway? And the media have another reason for not trying to shape taste: It pisses off the readers. They feel insulted, condescended to; they feel dumb. And no one will pay you for making him feel dumb. Public entertainment generally works in just the opposite way—by making the consumer feel like a genius. Even the most august publications and broadcasts no longer attempt to shape taste. They merely seek to reflect it. They hold the cultural mirror up to the reader—what the reader likes, the writer and the editor like. They hold the mirror up and the reader and—what else can he do?—the reader falls in love. The common reader today is someone who has fallen in love, with himself.
Narcissus looks into the book review and finds it good. Narcissus peers into Amazon’s top 100 and, lo, he feels the love. Nothing insults him; nothing pulls him away from that gorgeous smooth watery image below. The editor sells it to him cheap; the professor who might—coming on like the Miltonic voice does to Eve gazing lovingly on herself in the pool: “What thou seest / What there thou seest … is thyself,” it says—the professor has other things to do.
…which brings up a point I sometimes wonder about. Today’s best mathematicians and programmers spend entire careers perfecting algorithms to define our tastes based on past choices. Amazon, Netflix, and increasingly even places like Google and Facebook try their darnedest to figure out what we like, so they can find more of it to feed back to us. The social-sphere makes it so we only ever see and hear things we like from sources an awful lot like us.
Are we maybe losing out on a huge opportunity to grow by shutting ourselves into a predictive model of experience? Who will make the opposing model, that doesn’t load you up with similar stimulus to what you’ve had, but seeks to help fill in the gaps you’ve never explored? Where is the model that challenges us by offering: “You seem to listen exclusively to music influenced by 90’s alt-rock… maybe try a neo-classical cellist for once?” (may I personally recommend Julia Kent, a recent discovery whose album Delay got its hooks in me to a surprising degree).
As everyone races to prove they know what you like based on where you’ve been, there could be a huge opportunity for the person or company who arrives to help you learn based on where you haven’t.