While killing time before dinner at my grandparents’ house, I amused myself by pulling out my notebook and writing a little couple of paragraphs that wondered what Voltaire’s life would have been like if he had been born in the 20th century. This was a while ago–back when I was in the middle of reading Voltaire’s Letters on England (last year) and I had done enough research on his personal life beforehand to think it would be a fun challenge.
No… not really. It took me less than a paragraph to decide that it wasn’t, and the recent developments of Web 2.0 and TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year: You issue reminded me of why that was. (Why did it come just occur to me now to write it all down? …Not a clue.)
Let me explain it this way:
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the 1900s seemed to be the time period when personal career paths really started to catch on. In earlier centuries, someone’s future career depended almost entirely on what their father did for a living, or the area in which they lived in (big-name factory in the area = go into manufacturing). That stopped mattering about mid-century, when careers became a more personal choice–anyone could be just about anything they wanted, for the most part regardless of their parents’ career(s). Anyone could decide to become a novelist, or a scientist, and a lot of people started to choose those paths. Certain careers that were once avoided because they were impractical, impossible, or inaccessible–careers in the sciences, in the arts, etc.–were opened up to anyone.
Unfortunately, opening the doors of every career to everyone is a mixed blessing. Back in earlier centuries when careers in, say, the arts were impractical, impossible, and/or inaccessible, the people who did make a living that way had to be very good at what they did. If a person wanted to make a living as a poet or a playwright (who describes themselves as a poet or a playwright nowadays, anyway? Apparently we’ve all moved on…) they had better have had a damn good reason: that they had a certain aptitude for it or a very strong desire to succeed in that area, etcetera, because otherwise it was easier and more profitable to look for work elsewhere. The creative work that came out of the arts in those times had to be excellent, because each individual’s standard of living depended on it. Nowadays, I would argue, creative work need not be excellent–just acceptable. A walk into the political science or cultural studies section of most bookstores is convincing enough that anyone can get published these days; even more so with the romance, pulp fiction, or fantasy sections. Similarly with a walk through any store selling modern art.
This is a problem because it creates the overload of stuff, creative or otherwise, we see today: more books than we could ever read in a lifetime in one bookstore, millions of paintings sitting on the shelves in art stores, enough CDs in HMV or Music World to damage our hearing, thousands of styles and colors of the same basic (not really) clothing, etc. Consider this: Technorati alone is currently tracking 63.2 million blogs, with 175,000 new blogs added every day. The problem we now face, as creative individuals, is trying to stand out in a crowd of 63.2 million others who are trying to do exactly the same thing. Not even, actually; with the amount of creative work that everyone is spinning out nowadays–why not, if there’s no roadblock of impracticality, impossibility, or inaccessibility anymore?–we’re all trying to stand out in a crowd of billions of others trying to do the same thing. The popular t-shirt quote comes to mind: “You are totally unique… just like everyone else.”
How does this all tie back to my thinking about Voltaire in the modern times? Well, there’s a lot of flotsam and jetsam in creative work floating around today–or should I say, dotsam and netsam, a term we’ll probably be hearing a lot more of in the near future. What occurred to me, as I was writing that day to amuse myself, was that in today’s world Voltaire would be nothing exceptional–or at least nothing as exceptional as he was in his day. His most famous works, though far ahead of their time, wouldn’t count for much today. Candide, for example, probably wouldn’t have gotten published with today’s book markets, even though it was sensational at the time. His Letters on England would have been hardly more than another travelog, and a false one at that, because his Letters were greatly exaggerated to glorify English progress and tolerance over the old regime of France. The Philosophical Dictionary, an amazing work, wouldn’t have had a market today at all. The controversy surrounding his work at the time would have been non-existent nowadays, unless he had bothered to go to the extremes of Dan Brown or Richard Dawkins (which, given his personage, is not such a wild expectation). At the time Voltaire died in Paris, he was the greatest writer in France–but would he achieve similar fame in this time? As a great fan of his work and character, it depressed me to think that he might have been ‘just another writer’ had he been born in the late 1900s. A successful columnist, maybe, but probably not to the same acclaim he received in his own time.
I think that our society is experiencing a Flynn effect of creativity. As a whole, society gets more creative, just like we rise about three IQ points every decade. Just as IQ tests are made a little bit harder every so often to reset the average score to 100, maybe we need to set higher standards for blogs and other creative work–or maybe those standards will just fall into place as we mature into the Information Age. If everyone continues to produce content–some good, some not–the system will eventually have to collapse, because I don’t think we can deal with that much information efficiently. How long does it take to find a good blog now, compared to how long it took to find a good book when there was still a selectively permeable wall between mainstream and creative careers that let in only the talented?
Perhaps I’m just being pessimistic and elitist, but I think that wall might need to stay there. Of course, I want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to express themselves creatively, but I also think there needs to be a limit on the amount of information circulating out there. 63.2 million blogs is a lot. I don’t want to guess how many books are out there, but it’s probably several millions too many. Personally, I’m not one hundred percent sure where I stand on this (though it’s clear where I’m leaning), but I hope we can learn to work all of this out. Wall or no wall, it’ll have to be settled someday.