This book grabbed me when I read the synopsis, but I can’t remember where I saw it. I usually remember stuff like that. Oh well. This little article from Fast Company sums up some of this guy’s views. It’s interesting to me, this idea of the web actually adding value to our lives and to the economy in some form.
I’m a big fan of the web. I have an above average level of involvement in it, but I don’t feel that it’s an unhealthy level of involvement. Some of my most active involvement with the web is via this book blog and with my Flickr account. This blog really enhances my enjoyment of reading, for sure. And organizing all of my 6,700 photos (and counting) on Flickr enhances and will continue to enhance all of the memories captured by the pictures I’ve taken. What I’m doing, according to Cowen, is organizing all of the stories of my life. This mental ordering is not that weird (I’m comforted).
I’m really just doing it for my own sake. Not many people read this blog and not that many people ever check out my golf pix and such on my Flickr account. It may seem strange to a lot of people, this need to organize things into lists, with tags, and often with commentary on the whats and wherefores of each experience. I’m just compelled to do it. I can’t really give much more of an explanation than that, but Cowen has helped me sort things out.
It’s kind of a rambling book if you ask me. At least that’s how I felt as I read it. And I’ve been putting off writing about it because I’m struggling to piece it all together. Of course, I could just be dumb, but I’m finding it difficult to encapsulate it in a few sentences. Here it goes.
Early on, Cowen says this:
Today culture is not just about buying and selling straightforward commodities such as books or compact discs. Each day more fun, more enjoyment, more social connection, and indeed more contemplation is produced on Facebook, blogs, YouTube, iPods, eBay, Flickr, Wikipedia, and Amazon.com—among other services—than had been imagined twenty or even ten years ago. No matter what the medium, much of the actual value today comes from readers, viewers, students, and consumers, as an “add-on” to what they are sent by corporations. More and more, “production”—that word my fellow economists have been working over for generations—has become interior to the human mind rather than set on a factory floor. Even when a major media corporation produces the pixels, viewers and listeners use their mental ordering to create the meaning and the interpretations, and that is where most of the value lies.
This really speaks to me. I think about my consumption of books. I read fewer books than I could if I didn’t document them in such a detailed manner, but I enjoy them on a much deeper level because I do so. I’ve made reading richer and more fulfilling for me, and more economical in a certain sense (I don’t have to buy as many books). Or as Cowen says:
You have enhanced the meaning and the importance of the small cultural bits at your disposal and thus you want to grab more of them and organize more of them, and you are willing to work hard at that task, even if it means you sometimes feel harried.
Yeah, that’s right. Now some may differ that all of this reading or playing golf (another thing I like to sort, list and categorize) is worthy of being called “cultural bits.” How much culture is there in playing the local muni course or reading “Q” is for Quarry? To you, maybe not much. You may think I should be studying Nighthawks at the Art Institute or spending the day on a Frank Lloyd Wright tour. Well, okay. But, those aren’t for everybody. Can’t simple, everyday pursuits be deemed cultural, even if they don’t line up with your definition? Or as Cowen puts it:
In short, our contemporary culture has become more like marriage in the sense that we are trading in some peak experiences for a better daily state of mind. Culture has in some ways become uglier because that is how the self-assembly of small bits looks to the outside observer. But when it comes to the interior dimension, contemporary culture has become happier and more satisfying. And, ultimately, it has become nobler as well and more appreciative of the big-picture virtues of human life.
Interesting that he compares it to marriage, and I think he’s married. I’m not sure about the analogy, but this idea of being involved daily in simple cultural pursuits versus occasionally pursuing a peak experience may make the world travelers and art historians cringe. But it’s highly relevant in this day and age and represents how many people consume cultural pursuits right now.
Anyway, as the book goes on he develops these ideas by exploring the advanced mental ordering and cognitive skills of people with autism. He lauds their abilities as infovores and highlights how we can learn from them. I found this example interesting:
I have noticed that self-aware autistics are especially likely to be cosmopolitans in their thinking. That is, they tend to attach weaker moral importance to the boundaries of the nation state than do most other people.
Much of this cosmopolitan tendency is rooted in experience rather than cognition. Most autistics have lots of experience with being the “out group” when it comes to “in vs. out” confrontations or social settings. That makes them naturally suspicious of political persecutions, extreme forms of patriotism, and groupthink.
That’s a pretty cool way to look at things, and one of many ideas Cowen has to help us better our lives by borrowing from autistics. Autistics are expert at “ordering knowledge in preferred areas and perceiving small bits of information in perceived areas.” You can see how these skills could be valuable today as we are confronted with a huge amount of information at our fingertips. Figuring out how to situate ourselves so we are comfortable with what and how much we are consuming can be easier if we are game for experimenting with some of Cowen’s ideas.
Overall, for me, Cowen’s most important point is that we should increase our respect for neurodiversity. He says:
In the meantime, awareness of human neurodiversity helps us see the diversity of beauty in modern society, even if we cannot perceive all of those beauties. As cultural production becomes more diverse, more and more art forms will be directed at pleasing people with unusual neurologies. More and more of the aesthetic beauty of the world will be hidden to most observers, or at least those who don’t invest in learning. The aesthetic lushness of the world will be increasingly distributed into baroque nooks and crannies, in a manner that would honor a Borges short story.
I’m continually amazed at the range of human skills, talents, attitudes, etc… I’ll never be able to figure out what makes certain people tick, which is alright. I liked this book so I think I’ll subscribe to a blog he contributes to regularly, Marginal Revolution, just to see what else this dude has to say.