In and Out of Sync

Nothing spells cosmopolitan better than European festival programming. Torino, September 2017.

Like many people I know, I spend much of my time on social media avoiding information. There are days when, to invoke the long-running memes, I simply “can’t even”. Maybe it’s bad news about the economy or opioid addiction or climate change; or maybe I just can’t stand to hear about  Trump’s latest outrage. But I also expend a lot of energy avoiding potentially good news.

When television shows I care about are in the middle of a new season, I find myself balancing precariously between my habitual impulse to stay current online with my powerful desire not to know what happens in the latest episodes until I can sit down and watch them properly.

This is a common predicament in a world where so much of our input comes from people we are not able to communicate with directly. The more that the Internet has become the foundation of everyday interaction — so much so, some would argue, that it is no longer perceptible as the Internet anymore — the more such problems of mediation preoccupy us.

Every day, we navigate situations in which some people have more knowledge than others, whether they realize it or not. The ability to figure out who is in possession of particular information and who is not frequently represents the difference between success and failure in a vast range of endeavours.

Most commentators have focused on the extent to which knowledge translates into power. Corporations like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are able to leverage the vast amounts of data at their disposal to vanquish potential rivals and secure political advantages. And individuals who have privileged access to information also benefit in all sorts of ways.

What interests me more, though, is not this long-term structural asymmetry, which tends to become increasingly pronounced over time, but the more fluid and temporary sort that is absorbing increasing amounts of ordinary people’s time and energy. While our engagement with popular entertainment might not be as significant as other aspects of our existence, it is coming to serve as a proving ground for the information society, helping us seek out what you might call “micro-advantages” and compensate for the corollary lack of information that sometimes confronts us.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this new relationship with culture is how rapidly it is becoming second-nature. Both online and in person, those who can afford to spend time and money on amusing themselves now spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out both what they have in common with other individuals and where that shared experience diverges.

You can’t just declare yourself to be a fan of a television series or a band; you have to make it clear exactly how far along you are on the timeline of that particular fandom. While behaving politely might no longer require knowledge of your interlocutors’ class position, it frequently demands a precise understanding of their cultural standing: where they are up to speed, where they lag behind, and where they haven’t even entered the race.

In order to tease out the implications of this state of affairs, I’m going to extrapolate from my own recent experience with this problem of information differentials. Now, I realize that not everyone, even those with whom I have a great deal in common, behaves the way I’m about to describe. My own daughter has a habit of reading novels from back to front because she is frequently more interested in figuring out how the plot is constructed than in “feeling along” with its characters.

And, to state the obvious, there are far too many people who simply don’t have the privilege required to worry about what happens in fictional narratives. Nevertheless, I am confident, based on years of interacting with people in person and on the internet, that a lot of them share the concerns I have, both about being ahead of others and about being behind them.

It is reasonable for me to request that someone I see all the time steer clear of spoilers. But on a social media platform in which I see posts from hundreds of friends each day, this level of control is impossible. I can’t expect each and every one of them to customize their privacy settings just because of me. All I can hope is that they will be respectful of the fact that not everyone in their feed will be as up-to-speed in a particular fandom as they are. In my experience, though, it is almost inevitable that a few of my friends on social media will fail to be circumspect.

I’m not talking about the sort who derive perverse delight from ruining things for others. Although some parts of the internet are dominated by those individuals’ misanthropy, my feed is almost entirely free of their noxious presence. If my friends reveal spoilers, it’s either because they are not well versed in online etiquette or, more commonly, because the urge to share in the virtual conversation about a popular show is too strong to resist.

Predictably, this latter problem seems to be most acute with precisely those series for which I wish to avoid premature revelations. That’s why I frequently find myself taking a break from all social media, whether for a few hours or even a few days. I am willing to be temporarily ignorant about all the latest news in order to prevent myself from inadvertently acquiring too much information about things I care about.

I realize that this is hardly the sort of pressing problem that world leaders need to address. Who, ultimately, cares whether my experience of Game of Thrones is diminished because I find out that a character I love is going to die in the episode I have yet to watch? Although I try hard to avoid spoilers – I even avoid reviews of record albums I’ve been looking forward to – I also recognize that they rarely “spoil” a television series, book, or film all that much.

What interests me, rather, is the amount of energy I nevertheless expend compartmentalizing both my knowledge and my ignorance, because not only do I try hard to avoid spoilers, I try just as hard to avoid spoiling things for others. And, as I noted earlier, I know that I’m hardly alone in doing so.

To be sure, the asymmetrical distribution of information is not a new problem for culture. Back when Charles Dickens was releasing his novels in instalments, the advantage readers in England had over English-speakers in current and former colonies was such a big deal that people wondered how the electric telegraph might transform the publishing industry.  Even now, films are not usually released simultaneously around the world, guaranteeing that the capacity to spoil is often a function of geography. And works that are not readily available in electronic form, such as the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton, demonstrate the persistent importance of what Walter Benjamin called the “aura”.

Today, however, these more traditional differentials, which are relatively stable and easy to perceive, are complemented by a rapidly expanding network of ones that flicker into existence so briefly that they can be almost impossible to register. While both are a function of who has access to a work and when they achieve it, the question of how long that access confers an advantage looms increasingly large. To this extent, at least, the domain of cultural capital now operates much like that of financial capital, generating so much information so quickly that it can no longer be tracked with the naked eye.

When we try to discern trends these days, the distance between the averages that communicate them and the raw data that those averages distil is wider than ever before. And because more and more people have at least a vague sense of this gap, the validity of those trends is increasingly suspect. Even if we acknowledge that they roughly correlate to impressions we’ve personally had, it’s hard not to think that the most valuable insights are lurking somewhere in the data in ways we cannot yet comprehend.

I believe that it is primarily awareness of this crisis that is motivating many of us to expend so much time and energy on seemingly inconsequential tasks like avoiding spoilers. We know that there is power in what we know, of course, but also that there is power in what we know we don’t know and find ways to conduct experiments in that paradoxical territory.

Although I do not have time to explore it here, the great Marxist thinker Raymond Williams’ distinction between residual, dominant, and emergent formations could help to shed light on all this. At a time when backwardness and advancement are coming to be measured in days instead of decades and seconds instead of hours, making productive use of both the cultural capital we have and the cultural capital we lack is perhaps the most urgent task before us.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.