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‘Common’ Culture vs. ‘High’ Culture Through the Ages and How the Internet May Actually Be Shifting the Balance

This is going to be another post begun with a vague idea which hopefully morphs into something more cohesive as I go along.  But first, breakfast.

There, that’s better.

Whimsy – specifically defined as ‘playfully quaint or fanciful behaviour or humour’ – is obviously nothing new; folks have been waxing whimsical since probably the days when they were scribbling and such like on the walls of their caves.  And there’s quite a lot of absurdist ribaldry in Shakespeare, to use a well-known example.  But, aside from the few instances of strange and funny things which survive from the days of yore, what has mostly been preserved in the cultural record are the ‘serious, philosophical, thought-provoking or timeless things’; you know, like the rest of Shakespeare, and Herodotus, and the Child Ballads (some of which date to the 13th c.), and Darwin and oh, just about anybody else like that.  Do we know about all the funny songs people used to sing together in 16th c. inns to wile away the hours on a cold winter’s night?  Maybe a few, but they’re not in the public consciousness.  I’m sure they were telling fart jokes centuries ago, but I don’t know of any Renaissance-era flatulence humour (but wouldn’t you know it, there is this).  The reason, I believe, is that no one ever thought stuff like this was important enough to bother recording and writing down; it was all orally transmitted, and, even if some things did end up on paper at some point, scholars throughout the years probably ended up stashing the lot of it away somewhere as being too boring and useless to spend their time on.

But now . . .

Yes, thanks to the internet, every single possible joke and attempt at humour — no matter how clever or how inane – will never go away (until we destroy the planet).  We have enabled the creation of the largest – and most easily transmittable – repository of whimsy in history, and, by my reckoning, the whimsical side of the internet is probably already more important to many people than any other aspect of it; sometimes it does feel like a giant tidal wave of silly nothingness is going to come pouring out of my computer and drown me (and I recognize the joke that in that video, when the internet does invade, it’s into a world populated by talking unicorns – is that real irony or the Alanis Morrissette kind? Not sure).

To go back to some historical examples for a second, let’s look at Black and WTF:

As this shows, people were WTF long before the internet, and while two or three hundred years ago if people were doing silly things like this there would have been no way to remember it, with the advent of photography, many of these moments could now be captured on film.  But even then, if not for the internet, and someone deciding to collate all this stuff into one site, would you have ever seen it?  Nope.  It all just would have faded away, a bunch of stuff in dusty boxes in some archive somewhere.  Now, you can have your very own RSS feed to the wackiness of the 1870s – 1960s.  Free of charge.

The internet has been a game changer.  Now, everyone is online every day, constantly having e-mailed or Tweeted or Facebooked to them videos or photos or games or sites that, while funny, really are just mere distractions from all the possibilities of that other great side of the internet – the educational side.  There’s so much free knowledge available, about everything you could possibly think of, that it seems a bit of a shame that so many people waste hours and hours of their lives pouring over I Can Has Cheezburger (and making the creators of that astounding vapidity rich in the process) and other such things when they could be reading Hesiod, or the uncollected writings of J.D. Salinger, or something.

Plus, there are the kids to think about.  What you grow up with becomes the basis of your personal/cultural identity; if you grew up getting only minor doses of whimsy in school from, say, Shakespeare and Ovid, and spent the rest of your time studying the rest of the classics, you might end up a more serious person than if you grew up with Babar and Bunicula and Star Wars and Saturday morning cartoons; but, at least with the latter case, before the internet, there was still some reading of actual books – imagination strengthening – going on.  The kids growing up now, though, are doing most of their reading online, and because of that it’s mostly in short, attention-deficient bursts filled in with videos and graphical interfaces, and when they get older the stuff they remember from their youth is maybe not going to be characters from books but stuff like this.

Or, maybe this idea of mine is an overreaction; perhaps I’m putting too much stock in the staying power of this stuff and the internet in general.  Maybe it is all so empty that, despite it’s electronic-archiveability and easy-to-forward-ness, people will eventually forget about it and move on to more interesting and important things (for instance, when was the last time you looked at or thought about this?).  Or, maybe I’m right and it will all just keep self-perpetuating and there’ll be so much whimsy shooting through the wires that it will become the only thing most people ever do online (more so than now, that is) and the ‘high culture’ will once again become the sole domain of those privileged few who consciously choose to escape the chattering masses within the high rooms and keeps of their ivory towers.

But, even if this does happen, there’s one major difference between now and the past – we can’t be sure that it will be the ‘high culture’ that society in general chooses to raise up and laud and cherish, because their fart jokes now have permanence; their farts now have the power to sweep through those cultured towers like pestilential miasma, befouling and rendering useless everything inside.

What will happen if the farts run riot and take over?  I almost think I’d rather have climate-change induced destruction of most of the world instead of that.

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