Crowd Sourcing and the Homogeneous Choir
Perusing the selection of movies that Netflix offers on Instant Queue one is able to glimpse crowd sourced decision making. The movies that show up are consistently chosen by popular vote based on suggestions by other people that rated movies in a similar way, essentially delivering a customized selection of what you want. What you need. I recently watched a movie called, Ghost in the Shell: 2nd Gig because of its thematic elements related to cyberspace and human/techno blending. It caught my attention when I heard one of the characters say something along the line that people find information that suits them and follow it quickly and without question or hesitation.
It’s the future, people can be completely connected to the net, able to interact with others in their minds. Refugees are being exploited and discriminated against and armed conflict breaks out. A government man is crazed on power and manipulation of the masses. A terrorist organization erupts out of the situation, known only as Individual Eleven. A man, Hideo Kuze, that they consider their leader is trapped under tons of concrete with a potential ally/enemy. He says,
“After my experiences on the peninsula, I saw things more deeply. I found an order that was full of contradictions, exploitation by the powerful with a structure that had grown corrupt. What disillusioned me most was that people took no responsibility… for anything. Even though that hadn’t created anything themselves and they understood nothing. When the masses come across information they agree with they immediately internalize it. That’s how they’re controlled. When people feel no sense of responsibility no matter what the unintended consequences of their actions. That makes very poor use of the net.” – Hideo Kuze, Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd Gig – Individual Eleven.
Suitable information followed blindly is what it boils down to. To use a tired but still relevant adage, preaching to the choir. Essentially, crowd sourcing increasingly insulates the audience from information they would rather not know, creating a world of small, exclusive groups that are hardly aware that anything else exists beyond the boundaries of their favored clique. The question I would like to explore is whether small groups are a good or a bad thing. Is a society full of isolated, exclusive groups more desirable than a homogeneous society? They say that globalization has been brought on by technology, social networking, Skype, email, and the confluence and ubiquitous nature of cellular phones. Although admittedly, that is all crowd sourced information. What isn’t? Globalization generally brings with it a sense that the world is becoming homogeneous. But is that what is really happening?
This essay will explore how crowd sourcing affects communities and how that has impacted American literary movements. I will approach this topic by examining a few diverse yet interconnected topics. I will begin by examining postmodernism so we can conjecture as to what may come next, then talk about the status of American literature in the world because we need to understand where we stand, and then a quick exploration of crowd sourcing, and finally, a discussion section that will bring all the topics together in a synthesis that will hopefully reflect a possible outcome. But first, let’s examine postmodernism.
Postmodernism in American Literature
Each movement is a response to the preceding movement. There comes a time when new generations embark on a new journey that defines them. All of these moments seem to hinge on momentous, unforgettable events. The Civil War, both World Wars, Vietnam and most recently, the World Trade Center attack on 9/11. A new generation is spawned after each event. We know what came before, but what comes next? I believe the 9/11 attack is the next turning point for the next major literary movement. So many other events coincided with the event, communication gadgets and the commonality of the Internet. First I’ll examine postmodernism and postulate on what may be coming next.
What is postmodernism? The question itself belies the answer. I believe that even asking such a question approaches a deeper, visceral meaning of one of the more complex -isms in our shared historical construct. In short, to be postmodern one must question the question that questions another question about something that may or may have not have asked a question. It appears to be all about questioning. Ask a better question, we are trained, told, taught, scolded in the institution. But it is so much more than merely asking better questions. Postmodernism refuses to acknowledge its own questions or its own self-reflexivity or the meta narratives that surround it. It at once explores the nether regions of meta while at the same time discounting them as utter fallacy. In fact this distinction itself has a tendency to dissolve under further scrutiny. Irving said on his website Po-Mo, “The tendency to dissolve binary categories and expose their arbitrary cultural co-dependency is associated with postmodernism.” In essence, it seems that postmodernism is bipolar and schizophrenic while somehow maintaining a precarious balance within the further examination of itself.
With the advent of postmodernist art, process becomes just as valuable, if not more valuable, as the finished product. Jackson Pollack stands as an example worth exploring further. His focus on the public performance of the process and production of the works he produced embodies many of the basic tenants of postmodernism. Such a thing becomes less evident in the world of literature because of the nature of the medium. Not many would be entertained by observing an author hard at work, sitting hunched over at a desk or writing three words with their hand in a rush. A new interest in the creator’s process has grown out of the concept of social media, becoming a way to extend the story, so to say. What was once written letters to creators has become Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and discussion groups. Although, a meta-commentary on the commentary may serve as a path to a grander purpose meant to elucidate portions of postmodern thought. Sometimes, meaning in a literary work becomes disjointed and disconnected from reality and comprehension.
Status of American Literature in the World
American literature in the world at large has been neglected and is viewed as having an insignificant impact on the literature of the world. The reasons are all over the map and commonly boil down to shallow observations by the author. It was 2008, Horace Engdahl, was the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy had this to say, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining” (Crouch 2013). American literature is not engaging with the world. Engdahl was not the first to say or think this. Geir Lundestad, once director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute had similar ideas. Although this can be interpreted as inflammatory rhetoric, a challenge for Americans to engage with the world shines through.
American literature seems to be generally frowned upon by the rest of the world. But what never seems to be taken into consideration is the unique global historical situation of the Americas from North through Central to South. They are all young countries with very bloody histories and were settled by people that were escaping persecution and have since become some of the most culturally and racially diverse countries in the world. The diversity and relatively young age of the countries do not serve as a place where cultural homogeneity or cohesive identity has had opportunity to develop. Perhaps this diversity is one of the reasons that much American literature is seen as shallow, or perhaps inconsistent is a better word. Add to that the fact that the cultural production coming out of the United States is immense. Moments such as this bring to mind the 95/5 percent, or 99/1, percent (whichever you prefer) idea that has burgeoned so much recently. With so much cultural production, it is inevitable that most of it is average at best and a small portion is considered great. Among this small percentage there would be an extremely diverse cultural representation, which could account for why the world sees American literature production as shallow and inconsistent. Perhaps it comes down to American imperialism being propagated through popular mass media. Stories and mythmaking are popular items for consumption. Who wouldn’t be interested in watching a culture negotiate a cohesive identity? At the same time, who cares when all cultures are constantly negotiating identity? In reality, every country is diverse and different in its own way, but one cannot help but recognize the privilege that American cultural production suggests. There is so much to consume. Where does one begin?
Crowd sourcing is one way to acquire information and is based on the popularity of a topic. Pure quantity influences how one learns about something and trending internet searches are the most obvious example. In one respect, crowd sourcing has been around in some way or another since the beginning of recorded time, although it was probably easier to discover previously who the decision maker was. A feat that is nearly impossible today.
Early societies depended on their shamans and leaders to tell stories. From there, stories were told by economic and political leaders, and finally it seems we listen to advertising and search engines. Start typing search terms into either Yahoo or Google and suggestions based on your search show up. It can lead to an interesting exercise in found language poetry for one. (But that is something completely different.) Some suggestions can be pretty comical. These search suggestions direct the way things are searched for and while helpful, can lead to misdirection and serve as a way to plant ideas about topics. Type in any first name and the most famous people with those names show up. Is it because of how many people are searching for those names or are they paid advertising? The answer doesn’t really matter. Those are the names that everybody knows somehow, whether it is from the search itself or some other source. I recently typed “racism” into a Yahoo search. There was an advertisement in the side bar. Racism was plugged into an ad that suggested it is a disease. Some words fit neatly into the plug-in structure behind targeted marketing systems than others.
Aside from search engines, there are other services that use a ratings system based on your interests to give you personalized suggestions. Netflix was discussed previously and the other is Amazon. Amazon tracks not only your purchases and your product ratings, but also your browsing history. There also exists a browser add-on that allows you to add an item from any other website to your Amazon wish list. It is a powerful system that begins to direct your purchases through targeting marketing.
Email is the same along with Facebook and Twitter. The words you type are monitored and mined for keywords. For example, I recently started playing golf. I sent an email to a friend and talked about it. Soon afterward marketing for golf equipment began to show up in my feeds. Type a new keyword and watch as new ads begin to infiltrate your periphery. Over time, it becomes commonplace, something unquestioned. Who knows what will happen now that I’ve typed golf here.
Taking these examples into account one begins to wonder if we control our own narratives. We are constantly bombarded by information but our brains can only process so much at one time so we tend to focus on information that we are already familiar with, which then tends towards specialization into narrow fields of discourse. All of our basic information in our contemporary moment is in some way crowd sourced. We need to be aware of where our information is coming from so we can make an informed, critical decision about what we consume.
Now is the time to tie all of the elements together to make some sense. In order to make a prediction about the next American literary movement we need to be aware of the last, postmodernism, then sprinkle in the status of American literature in the world, and then consider where our information is coming from. Synthesizing these three elements may give us a vista into potential literary movements.
Generally, new movements respond to and diverge from the previous movements in an attempt to address limitations of the previous movement. Although not entirely true it is a good rule of thumb to follow. Since postmodernism focused on meta-discourse and ignored the big myths in an America steeped in myth, we can envision a broader discourse that is more direct and features a return to the big myths. So where does that leave American literature against the rest of the world? I think the return to broader myths and a more direct discourse will help to mold American culture from the disparate to something more consistent. I predict that crowd sourcing will affect a more consistent culture by providing a common ground of knowledge and experience. It will have an effect of larger groups as well as smaller ones. All groups will strengthen and solidify. There will be more groups that will want to communicate what they feel is important.
Although purely conjectural, we can already see the creation of smaller groups in places like Facebook and YouTube. You can join a group with other people that share your name. I believe there is a “John Smith” group on Facebook, which is only one example of the many groups that exist. These small groups create a homogeneous community where a group focuses on a specific topic only, but each member may be a part of other smaller groups and may also associate with a larger entity. These smaller groups specialize until they become so specialized that their topic begins to broaden again, becoming a diverse topic in and of itself that needs to consider external elements in order to understand it fully. With this the world will follow suit and will begin to shrink into smaller groups with more specialization but it will help to bring the world together because I believe there will be membership within multiple groups with complex intergroup negotiations taking place.
What is to come we can never know and it is difficult to see where we are right now. But examining what came before and what we do know of the present can aid in exploring and discussing what may come. The internet has changed the way we approach the world and will inevitably have an effect on how literature is produced and shared. The nature of the internet is in globalization and specialization but these concepts expand once they reach a specific capacity and expand again. I don’t know what the next literary movement will be called but I feel that as long as American literature casts off the perceived cloak of indifference and engages with the world, it will be actively engaged with whatever that new movement will be. Or will it?
Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd Gig – Individual Eleven. Dir. Kenji Kamiyama. Production I.G. Bandai entertainment, 2007.
Irvine, Martin. “The Pp-Mo Page: Postmodern to Post-postmodern.” Georgetown University, 2004-2011. http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/pomo.html. Accessed 01 November, 2011.
Crouch, Ian. “Why Don’t More Americans Win the Nobel Prize?” The New Yorker. October 8, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-dont-more-americans-win-the-nobel-prize. Accessed 26 March, 2016.