Is the Internet Killing Culture?


[The Age of Civilization by Jan Soucek]

I have a confession to make.

I haven’t been able to finish reading an entire book in over three months.

My compulsive and ardent participation on the Internet, writing blogs, commenting, publishing poems, and reading others’ work, seems to have something to do with this.

Mostly my reading these days is confined to the well-written columns of The New York Times. I am a New York Times enthusiast and reading the newspaper coincides perfectly with my short span of attention.

A couple weeks ago, I grew interested in the phenomenon of “mass amateurism” on the Web and I wanted to investigate it. I asked a couple prominent literary bloggers, Nigel Beale from Nota Bene Books and Andrew Seal, from Blographia Literaria, to write essays for this webzine.

In Nigel’s essay, he quotes the author Andrew Keen from The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing our Culture. And while I won’t re-quote Keen here because the message is in the title, I would like to respond based on my own experience of the last couple years, and how my behavior has changed in regards to the medium of the Internet.

From college onward, I delved into literature as if it were a contact sport, devouring the classics with fervor and intensity. I majored in English, which gave me somewhat of a background in reading these authors, but I went beyond my studies to read European classics most of which weren’t taught in my classes.

I loved French and Russian realism. I relished the imaginative powers, the ability of these great writers to create worlds inside their fiction. My favorite authors were Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola in the French tradition; and Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov in the Russian.

Literary realism became my opium; I seemed to be able to live off of it forever; indulging in these beautiful and convincing worlds. Intoxicated I would spend days in the library reading, losing track of time and forgetting everything that pained me in my trivial life.


[The Great Illusion by Jan Soucek]

The days of literary intoxication may be over, however. I recall them with a sort of nostalgia but I can no longer enter those worlds. I refuse to abandon myself to them; I don’t have the patience to read Zola’s meticulous story-telling or Tolstoy’s epic handling of characters and events.What has happened since? Have I changed? Have I lost my ability to engage in culture and art?

The Internet has definitely changed the way I read and what I read. But it has also changed my view of myself from a passive receiver of “culture” to an active participant and creator of it.

In many ways, I’ve become the epitome of the amateur artist on the Web. I publish everything; poetry, essays, novels, even some sketches. And like many bloggers, I bask in the freedom to express my thoughts, my impressions, my art.

I poignantly remember a creative writing college professor once telling me–after I announced my desire to become a professional writer–“You won’t publish for another ten years. I’ve seen the corpses.”

And so, now it is with a certain exuberance and defiance that I publish freely on the Web, all with the click of a button.

To me, the proliferation of artistic expression, the videos on YouTube, the online novels, the loads of bad poetry, cannot be equated with a loss or diminishment of culture but instead a replenishment of it. “More artists, more culture,” I say–even if the great majority of those artists are naive and unskilled. The individual acts of creativity, that’s what’s important, and with more people creating, I see the phenomenon of mass amateurism as a boon.

The novel I’m reading now–when I take the time to read–is called, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. While I’ve lost my attention to read classical literature, my attention seems to be on par with the requirement for contemporary novels and non-fiction. Any casual observer of the novel by Geoff Dyer will recognize that he is no Balzac, no Chekhov, no Flaubert. Contemporary novels are infinitely easier to read than classics, especially the ones that make it on The New York Time’s “Bestsellers List”.

But I’m glad I have my Geoff Dyer book to read for pleasure, because I can’t possibly focus my mind on War and Peace. My level of attention simply will not allow it. I’m still nostalgic for great literary works, and knows well that I still like to buy them, but do I read them whole? No. I can’t finish them.

The Internet is a medium of conversation and expression. It is participatory. Reading a whole stack of books by myself does not seem conducive to a lifestyle that clings impulsively to a MacBook throughout the day.

The question then becomes: Is art and literature in the modern age diluted? Is it watered-down literature?

We hear about the death of American poetry, the death of criticism, and the death of the American novel. And increasingly, international audiences are finding it harder to relate to literature in America (see The New York Times article, “Yet Once More a Laurel Not Bestowed”).

The Internet may not be entirely responsible for the supposed death of the arts in America, but there is a certain insularity to American prose and poetry that not a lot of international audiences “get” or appreciate. I think too much of contemporary writing is abstract or superficial; it lacks the density of great works of art.

And yet, ironically, my faculties have gone down for appreciating those great works, and I’m more likely to pick up an amusing and mildly thought provoking novel–nothing too serious or intense.

But there is another side to my (subjective) experience on the question of whether the Internet is killing culture. While my dedication and commitment to literature has diminished, my attention to visual art has increased. Escape into Life attempts to merge literature with the arts. My mother was an artist and I have a great admiration for visual expression.

I believe the Internet has in fact expanded my capacity to appreciate and discuss art. Never before have I had so much art to look at and admire, to study and remark on.

With this discovery, I have begun writing illustration art reviews for the Webzine. I take it upon myself to find outstanding illustration artists on the Web, both award-winning and amateur artists, and I write detailed accounts of their work. This practice has definitely enlarged my “culture”.

Not only am I writing about artists, but I’m having an exchange with them, developing a social network and fostering relationships with people who share the same interests.

This, I would say, is not an act of “killing culture”; but an act of embracing it, an act of helping it flourish and grow.

One commenter (@TheDarkEngine) writes, “But when ‘mass amateurism’ is accepted as the norm by the culture at large, it may lose its critical abilities.”

TheDarkEngine is right when he says that critical abilities are necessary to judge cultural works. My optimism for capital “C” culture in regards to the Internet is that I believe we can sharpen our critical abilities by discussing which amateur and non-amateur poems, novels, and visual works warrant our attention.

The critical faculty will not “atrophy” (TheDarkEngine’s word) if we actively take part in organizing art and criticism on the Web and talk about it. The proliferation of voices must enter some kind of filter and that is the task of educated readers and the artists themselves.

We can point to the success of one body of “amateur” work; which is Wikipedia. Wikipedia proved that amateurs can in fact trump their professional counterparts with the advances of social technology. Old-school critics who defame literary bloggers may underestimate the value of the many over the one. When this essential quality of the Internet gets overlooked, it may appear on the surface that the medium is not producing anything valuable to culture.

The many voices of the Internet is the Internet. The play of educated and non-educated voices, the high and low, the critical and non-critical, this is the essence and to reject the essence is to reject a large portion of human activity at present. Social technology–and all of the Web’s manifestations–are becoming inseparable from culture.

The Internet demands some degree of participation from everyone–whether its reading a blog post, commenting on one, or rating that commentator’s comment. But everyone can choose their level of participation. Together, the collective efforts of individuals, small web publications, large media outlets, Wikis, forums, social networks, bookmarking sites, determine the shape and trajectory of culture over the Internet.

With each new medium that comes along, some Ivy League professor will exclaim that culture is dying as a result. Culture is not dying; it’s transforming in unpredictable ways, unexpected off-shoots, and amazing digressions. The audiences and the consumers of art, and the creators themselves, may not look the same. But who ever said they should?

And who ever said Culture is static?