Monday, 29 September 2008

Elitist Memes

I want to delve into the speculative for a moment, and highlight my inner struggle over the role of society & culture. The struggle exists in how ideas are to be preserved throughout time. Memes have a propagating tool of their own, but I sometimes wonder if commercialism is pushing society towards an idiocracy where memes previously of cultural significance will be starved by their aggressively pushed counterparts; where feeding the selfish gene on a most basic level will do away with the complex yet subtle landmarks of our time. My personal struggle is reconciling the notion that the population decides it's culture with the value of elitism.

The culture explosion
A look back at culture over the last 500 or so years is a monument to the creativity of the human race. The Da Vincis, the Shakespeares, the Bachs & Beethovens, the legacy of those few who shaped our cultural landscape will be immortal as long as western society survives. We've even gone beyond that and preserved their legacy in digital code, thanks to possibly the most important cultural legacy of all: science. Now while science has done it's best to preserve the past, the mechanisms which it has used are now the fundamental way that society as a whole communicates. The method of preservation that once only catered for the most elite ideas is now recording every piece of cultural significance. In effect, while the preservation culture for centuries has been at the discretion of the societal elites, now it's in the hands of the masses.

From this point of view I can see the merits to post-modern thought on culture. The worth is in the eye of the beholder, and art becomes equally valid. If someone asked me to name what I felt the most significant music of the current decade, my answer would be different to most other peoples. Of course I could feel what I chose is better, and I could give reasons that justify that position. Ultimately my choice is subjective, just as all the choices of others are. In that sense it's all equally valid, but ultimately there are winners and losers on the culture front. Some memes survive long after others, they can transcend cultural boundaries and time-frames. Where in a consumer model everything has a shelf-life, the memes survive well beyond their allotted lifespan.

Now a meme's ability to survive is itself a gauge of it's worth. While some memes can propagate very successfully and rapidly, the longevity is the key. Ideas with worth will survive longer, the cultural imprints that have either a representative quality of their era or a timeless characteristic will be ultimately successful and therefore of cultural worth. This is not the only gauge of it's worth, and there is room for that one nefarious character in our society: the expert.

The importance of being elitist

Sam Harris recently wrote an excellent article on the role of elitism and politics, it seems that being elitist is something as a society we explicitly reject on a personal level yet strive towards on a daily basis. By and large people do realise the important role that the experts play, just look at the creationists who will appeal to any scientist who will validate their position. Where the role of the expert comes in is where there is a realisation that some people know more than others about a subject. While most people could tell the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $5 cask, there are only a few with trained palettes that can describe in great depth of the balance between flavours and assess the comparative quality of similar wines. Same goes for critics of all cultural phenomena, their time and dedication into learning the intricacies of their particular field puts their views as being worth more.

This does not mean that the elitists are authoritative or dictating culture, their views come from an educated background but are still subjective. One doesn't have to agree with an expert, it's opinion (educated opinion) and not science. What it does is set up a separate rung for memes to sit on, and gives an option for culture that the elites consider worthwhile a chance to survive in a marketplace where it would go over the heads of most people. Now this is the difference that the last 100 years has to the 450 before it; before it was purely those in the know; the elites of society, who would decide culture. The memes existed purely in upper class circles, where education and resources meant only a select few were the culture of propagation. Now the mass-market decides the worth.

So often art these days has to go after the lowest common denominator. It's a product, and it's one that must sell in order to sustain itself. So much of commercial television these days is mediocre at best, I struggle to see how people can watch these shows of no style or substance. Even the shows with something often descend into predictability and resorting to gimmicks. I wonder how much it's on the back of every artist's mind that when creating a work of art it has to be sellable. Does this have an effect on the final product even before the producers get their hands on it? Gaming since it's a new artform can give insight into this. As the market has exploded and the audience is now mainstream, companies that want to stay afloat have to target the main market. While Bioshock was a great game in it's own right, many of the elements from it's spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2, were either simplified or cut out to make the game more accessible to the general audience. It made for a more streamlined game, though less of an immersive world.

It's now hard to think of art as anything other than entertainment, it's ability to sell is the propagation tool. The role of the expert is to take that entertainment and determine what is worthy of preservation given it's content, context and competition. Is the content of the art groundbreaking or profound? Is it contextual and symbolic of the time it was made? Does it stand above the competition and what makes it so? There is still art, while being entertainment, that has the memetic traits to compete in the environment of the experts. While this market is maintained, culture should preserve memes both popular and the profound. The danger is that in a society where everyone rates themselves an expert that the voices of those who are truly in the know will be drowned out.

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