Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Problem With Cultural Significance

Autumn Scene by John Banvard

I was listening to the latest Cracked podcast (as I tend to do) and they were discussing how often year end retrospectives and top ten lists get things wrong: http://www.cracked.com/podcast/21-viral-stories-everyone-got-wrong-in-2014/

In particular, they looked back at some lists from previous years, such as the top movie lists from a few years ago, and saw how they often list important movies that have since been largely forgotten, while often missing movies from that year that have gained cultural significance since.

Part of their argument was how often we are unable to tell the significance of events in the moment and can only get a reasonable idea in hindsight. So, for example, Academy Awards often go to movies that then get largely forgotten, or at least fail to stay on peoples' "most significant" lists.

How many of the biggest news events of the year will still be considered so important 10 years from now? Will the Ebola outbreak be remembered? How about Malaysian Airlines Flight 370? The news media went nuts about that for weeks, yet it's almost certain to be completely forgotten in years to come (since it was actually not as unusual an occurrence as people thought). After this year will Bill Cosby be remembered as a groundbreaking comedian or a serial rapist? 

But, while all of this discussion was very interesting (and I highly recommend this and pretty much all episodes of the Cracked podcast), it made me think about a bigger issue which they didn't really tackle in their discussion, which is what we're actually trying to capture with retrospective lists anyway, and do they ever really tell us anything useful?

Cultural Significance

When we make lists of important things from a particular year, decade, or even century, what are we trying to capture? It seems that people see these lists as a summary of the most important things in that time period, a distillation that removes all the noise and just gives the things that are worth remembering. Or possibly drawing your attention to things that you missed but that a culturally aware person should know about.

So for an event, this could mean something that had big repercussions, or caused a great deal of change. But it could also mean something that grabbed lots of attention, but ended up not making any real difference to anything. Or maybe it could even be an event that should have been noticed by more people and had a more significant impact, but for some reason did not.

The same goes for movies, music, books, all works of art. Something that makes a 'most important' list could be important because it's a masterpiece, a demonstration of great skill or insight. Perhaps it's been recognized as such, or it's been largely overlooked. It could be important because it was hugely financially successful. Or it could be noteworthy because it was a massive flop.

Or take a list of the most important or influential people of the year. You could end up with people like Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber all on the same list. These are all people who dominate the news and are household names, so clearly have cultural significance, but all for different reasons. How much will each be remembered 10, 50, or 100 years from now? How much should each be remembered?

Remembering the Memorable

The problem seems to be that, as time goes by, we remember the things that keep getting referenced the most, and forget about the others, in a brutal distillation process. But we tend to make the assumption that the things that get referenced the most are the things that matter the most, the things that we should be referencing, and that the things that get forgotten by history deserve it.

But a close examination of the past shows how often this turns out to be false. Things become remembered for silly reasons, or even malicious reasons, the result of a deliberate campaign by one party against another, and something important literally gets wiped from history, at least for the vast majority of people.

So lots of people list the Mona Lisa as the most famous painting in the world. But this has only been true since 1911 when it was stolen and later recovered in a well known heist. It has only held this position of significance since then. But clearly it didn't become a better painting by being stolen, so the fact that it now takes up the number one spot in so many peoples' minds while other works of art get crowded out and forgotten is a failure of some kind on our part. You have to ask yourself whether there are better paintings far more worthy of being remembered but through some twist of fate or another you're simply not aware of.

A book I read a few years ago called Banvard's Folly tells the story of various people who were often very famous in their day but have since largely been forgotten by history. So, for example, John Banvard, for whom the book is named, was once considered one of the greatest painters in America, but was ultimately run out of business by the superior advertising (though inferior product) of P. T. Barnum. It would be a little like if, 100 years from now, everyone remembers Michael Bay but Steven Spielberg has been largely forgotten.

There is a very strong effect that we're starting to become aware of that makes a very small proportion of things snowball and become significant, while everything else tends to be forgotten. Thanks to the way we can track so much more information these days we can see this more than we ever could in the past. We see it in such diverse places as the brutal marketplace of mobile apps, where many very good products disappear into obscurity, while a mediocre game like Flappy Bird makes a fortune for no good reason; or in citations for scientific papers, where so many potentially significant papers get forgotten while a very small number get referenced a lot.


We have a long history of remembering things for bad reasons, and ignoring or forgetting things that actually matter. I think there's a lot of value in always being skeptical of the 'important' things that get presented to us and wondering what things have slipped under the radar and missed our attention. Hopefully we will start finding better methods to catalog and rank things in a way that pushes back against this snowballing affect that seems to have a high cost to our society but we end up being mostly unaware of.

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