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Arts & Culture | October 22, 2012

Society used to value the well-read. Those who dedicated the time to delve into literature—whether Dickens, Shakespeare, or Hemingway—were praised for their intellect, and revered for their patience. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him which books he reads.” But our values have transformed considerably since Emerson’s time. The actual definition of “well-read” has never been hard and fast; while some have a soft spot for Tolstoy, others reach for Austen. But there has been a distinct shift in the value of reading as a whole. This shift is not merely a preference for one group of writers over another, but rather a societal emphasis on a whole new type of literacy. Information moves so quickly today, and media forms such as music, videos, and photos can be shared effortlessly and infinitely. As a result, today’s society is more concerned with a sort of “cultural literacy” than with actual book-reading. On Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, there is a constant flow of conversation about pop culture and the media. If you haven’t heard the latest Beyoncé song, or seen the commercial everyone’s talking about, or watched the most-discussed clips from the presidential debate, you’re left out of the conversation.

This conversation doesn’t omit writing as an art form entirely, but rather than embracing books, it highlights viral articles and news stories. A foundation in shared cultural and artistic experiences is necessary today to take part in social interactions, and the “fear of missing out” motivates many to keep up. In addition to this shift in the definition of literacy, in today’s world we also place high stock in brevity, efficiency, and speed. You have 140 characters and a few hours to offer a relevant opinion on the “Newsroom” pilot, or on the Macklemore video promoting gay rights. This enables easy access for many unlikely readers to a variety of news sources, and makes large quantities of news more digestible. Unfortunately, this norm also doesn’t naturally encourage thoughtful interaction with art and the media, and the volume of such material is simply too great for any one person to be well-versed in everything. This creates a tendency for many to take the “crash course” approach, and dip their toes in only as deep as necessary to get them through a Facebook post or a quick interaction.

This shift certainly doesn’t signify that young people have ceased reading entirely. There will always be a contingent of the population devoted to literacy in the traditional sense. But today, consumption of other media unites us across far more boundaries than books do. A 2007 study from the National Endowment for the Arts showed that the average American young adult spends nearly two hours each day watching television, while spending only seven minutes per day on reading. While there is a considerably large range in television consumption across American youth, this contrast is undeniable. And while different demographics undoubtedly consume different types of television—“The Jersey Shore” became a huge hit whether people were watching it “ironically” or not— no one wants to be culturally ignorant. To be ignorant to the world of media and culture, across the lowbrow-highbrow spectrum, is to be irrelevant and thus set apart from the rest of our generation.

We don’t always choose frivolous pop culture content to consume, but technology certainly shapes the way we expose ourselves to real art. At concerts, art museums and public gardens alike, we are confronted with a sea of iPhones, snapping pictures and dutifully passing them through the filters of Instagram. There are many facets to this change. Technology certainly renders art more accessible, widening the range of people who can actively interact with material they might not otherwise encounter. Those who might never make it to that art exhibit or find the time for that concert can access them, perhaps being directed there by way of powerful social discourse. In the same vein as a liberal arts education, this buffet-style approach to culture gives people a little taste of everything. Additionally, current technologies often encourage individuals to be curators of their own material, prompting them to add their own spin to the media content they consume.

There is, though, a side of this trend that hinges on exhibitionism. We often watch videos, skim articles, and try TV shows on for size because of the discussion surrounding them, not for the mediums themselves. In a world of personal branding and constant impression management, the language and pace of our society can lead us to consume the media more shallowly. Rather than take the time to truly experience art, we migrate towards spectacles, memes, and phenomena, favoring the viral over the profound. It’s like going to the Louvre, taking a photo with the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, and promptly leaving. We acquire a passing familiarity with many artists, writers, singers and filmmakers, rather than embracing a passion for one and taking the time to deepen our knowledge.

This change doesn’t need to be negative— we can harness the positive influence of technology on art and culture, and embrace the variety of art forms in our society. We can diversify the media we consume, and educate each other to fill gaps in our knowledge. Overall, experiencing an amalgam of media, art and culture will make us well-rounded and informed. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to things that are high-brow and well-respected, and on the other hand, we shouldn’t be confined to the popular. It’s when artistic consumption becomes disingenuous that we’ve lost sight of the point. Technology and the speed of communication are directly impacting the way that individuals value literacy, and the types of content that are impactful to social interactions. But this impact can be an advancement, rather than a regression. Instagram need not make us appreciate professional photography less, but can spark an interest in unlikely photogs. Twitter can direct us toward longer news stories, instead of replacing them. And literature will always have a place in society, even if the “required reading” of our time is more visual and participatory than in eras past. The trick lies in refocusing this shift as a force of progress.