The weirdest thing happened when Google came in: Cultural literacy went out. When I was 19, the Web was in its infancy, but I daresay my knowledge of my culture was much broader and deeper than nearly any 19-year-old I know today. Last night on the Grammys, when Paul McCartney took the stage, legions of incurious young people took to Twitter to wonder aloud who he was. Universally, they had the same self-defense.
“That happened before I was born.”
As if that’s an excuse. The Beatles were before my time, too, but I still know about them. In fact, there are a lot of things that happened before my time that I still know about, including but not limited to the Civil War, Warren G. Harding, the World’s Columbian Exposition, and the Stage Door Canteen.
Lest this come across as a Get Off My Lawn rant, I think there may be a cultural reason for the self-enforced stupidity we’re seeing in American youth, and moreover, for a stubborn failure to perceive that mouth-breathing ignorance as a failing. When I was a kid, we had three network channels, plus a few random channels in the double digits where you would find grainy re-runs of The Brady Bunch, The Monkees, and I Love Lucy. When your cultural outlets are that distilled, everyone tends to be exposed to the same stuff.
Today, kids have 600 channels. None of them are on the same page (not even the same Web page). It’s hard to blame them if they don’t know what to consider relevant. They have only word of mouth to prompt them.
But it’s easy to blame them for wearing their ignorance like a badge. I forgive them for not knowing, but I can’t understand why not knowing doesn’t upset them, or at least pique their curiosity. This generation has Google and Wikipedia, yet it’s the least inclined of all to actually use them. We have created for ourselves tools beyond our ancestors’ abilities to imagine, tools with the potential of transforming and enlightening mankind forevermore, and yet we utterly lack the agency to activate them.
If you don’t know something, Google it. A decade ago, even that advice seemed like a short cut. Today, people aren’t even bothering to do it at all.
It’s as if knowing the information could be at our fingertips is enough, and actually accessing that information is a formality we need not engage.
There are kids who use these to sponge up understanding of the world into which they were born. But too many of them merely crowdsource remedies to their ignorance, ensuring that the most enduring aspects of our culture are those few topline facts we all agree on. American culture is becoming no richer than the 200-odd standard songs on a Clear Channel rotational playlist. I suppose this is the same shallowness that Hollywood depends on to pump out remake after sequel, with nothing original to inspire future generations of recyclers.
There’s a dissertation to be written about this phenomenon, no doubt: the fantasy that owning an encyclopedia automatically makes you smart. The queasy realization that the upcoming generation measures the worth of something based on whether they overheard someone talking about it or saw it reposted somewhere.
I want to say: Paul McCartney was a Beatle. Spelled that way. They broke up before you were born. They broke up before I was born, too, but I still know all about them.
They were important, but it’s also true they were not nearly as important as many other things you will never know about because you will not be accidentally exposed them on the Grammys.
And because you do not care about reaching for anything that is not placed in front of your face, you are doomed to live small. You are the perfect consumer.