"Pay my troops no mind; they're just on a fact-finding mission."

Mass Popularity Dilutes Quality

Let’s go back and read a novel from the 19th to early 20th century, or even a newspaper.  Then compare the writing style back then compared to now.
We quickly notice
-The use of vocabulary is far more varied and more sophisticated than we see today.
-Language use is more creative, less literal.  Figurative expression bordering on the poetic is common.
-Writers assume a much greater attention span in their readers, pacing much more slowly than we see today.
-Writers assume their typical reader has a classical education and is not afraid to quote in Latin and Greek or to make abundant references to Greek mythology and Roman literature.

What’s astonishing is the baseline of quality was higher when the world was far poorer, less educated, with a fraction of today’s population.
What happened?
My guess is the higher standard of quality existed because the audience was a more narrow, educated slice of the population.  The quality was high because unsophisticated people were not yet able to participate.  So the market actually catered to the best of the race rather than the most puerile.
At length, a universally educated public gradually exerted its overwhelming force on the market, enshrining the insipid and mediocre as Gods of the collective.
In a universal market, that which entertains the most and offends the fewest reigns supreme—that which inspires no deep passion but is merely neither too hot or cold.  But that which belongs to everyone, does not truly belong to anyone.  This is the fundamental problem of mass culture.

We can look at issues of Time magazine from just a couple decades ago and see a dramatic difference in the tone of articles and amazingly, even in the advertisements.  It was not unusual for advertisements have a whole paragraph in relatively small print.  It’s strange anymore to see much copywriting beyond the tagline.  Got Milk? or Absolut x.  That usually does the trick.  If they write several sentences, now, no one will ever read them.

80s advertisement with more copy writing

I randomly found this going through some pages of a 1984 issue of Time magazine. No one would actually read small print copy like this anymore.

For another example, we might observe computer gaming.  With limited graphics, what we now call the Adventure genre was a staple from text games like Zork and culminating in franchises like SpaceQuest or Quest for Glory.  Since owning personal computers was still restricted mostly to affluent geeky households, the content of these games was a lot more witty and cerebral, with more in-universe detail, demanding considerable patience and brains to solve puzzles.
Of course, having much less graphics to work with may have forced to developers to focus more on gameplay and content, but it can’t by itself explain why games increasingly came to rely first on flashy graphics, content later.
A good example might be to compare, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind to ES IV: Oblivion.  Morrowind had a few orders of magnitude more content than Oblivion had to offer.  Anyone who’s enjoyed Morrowind will remember the incredible attention to detail with a whole world full of exotic native plants and animals that feature in the diets, clothing, and even the architecture of the local peoples.  Throughout the game world there’s seemingly endless books—popular literature, histories, and religious texts of a fictional people.  The game can be played by following quests only, but some of the game’s most rewarding experiences are stumbling on places you’d never find if you didn’t leave the beaten path.  Many quests involve finding a person or place based only on a crude description.
By the time Oblivion was developed, Elder Scrolls was no longer a niche franchise.  The sequel was naturally tailored to be more popularly received.
The setting was made as familiar as possible, pretty much a rip off of the Lord of the Rings movies that were at a zenith of popularity at the time, easily lumped in with similar clones like Dragon Age that even began the game with a Grima Wormtongue clone traitor and a battle at Helm’s Deep against Orcs ahem…uh “Hurlocks.”
Any setting of course can shine with good direction.  Starcraft borrows heavily from Warhammer 40k, which they originally wanted a license for anyway, but the derivative game universe succeeded in taking on a vivid life of its own.
Oblivion, though, had a scant fraction of the content that was in Morrowind, even mostly borrowing books from the previous game.  Quests were made as simple as possible by always having a marker on your map telling you exactly where to go with no navigation or puzzle solving required.  They made it impossible to kill people necessary to the main quest as one might make a toy impossible for wanton toddlers to break.
The emergence of Oblivion on the popular scene was a excellent case of what happens when one tries to adapt a niche element to everyone.  The result is watered down.

Observe political rhetoric.  Simply compare the original televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon, or the oratory of 18th-19th century politicians, to modern rhetoric.  Hell, compare a George W. Bush speech to those of Ancient Roman senators.  The comparison is truly pathetic.  Again, unregulated mass participation waters down an institution until it becomes a farce.

Finally, let’s look at the movies.  Hollywood is a great example how that which belongs to everyone belongs to no one.
For instance, they chose to have a Nazi fighter, Captain America, not fight Nazis because of their desire to please every country and every demographic.  What if Indiana Jones had fought random Nazi proxies?  Would that have been the same?
Hollywood avoids risks with most big movies now remakes or reboots of old franchises.
The result is tepid and predictable, but totally devoid of the potential to inspire great culture.

Not long ago, the scarcity of wealth and education acted as a crude form of quality control.  Since this basic quality control always came naturally in a world that was mostly impoverished with most people illiterate, it’s not a problem societies have yet learned to deal with.
If we actually stop to think about it though, it seems obvious that for high culture and innovation to exist, there has to be a way to insulate the high forms from the low.
Culture now exists as an open system, all currents mixing together into lukewarm nonsense.  Clearly, we need to separate culture into its proper organs so each may perform its rightful function.

See Also: Pop Music Is Folk Music Elevated Beyond Its Proper Place

10 responses to “Mass Popularity Dilutes Quality

  1. Pingback: Mass Popularity Dilutes Quality | Neoreactive

  2. Sam October 28, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    Movies are so stupid now it’s unbelievable. Many, many, many times they have a plot element that is just not possible. Some kind of basic scientific screw up that ruins the whole movie for me. Some cases it’s not a science screw up. Maybe just a plot element that any one in their right mind would never act the way the character does. Great effects though. About all that’s left.

    An example. The movie Fury. It was a great movie all the way through but at the end one of the characters is found by a German soldier and he lets him go. What complete nonsense. After they had just shot up over half his fellow soldiers the German would just let him go? Ruined the whole movie by sheer stupidity. They could have had him hide and get away but they had to add complete stupidity.

    In many cases, as the above, there’s simple plot lines that could have negated the stupidity. I’m not sure why they even come up with some of the plot lines.

    Other people have commented how even people who like to read have less attention span. I’m guilty of this. Before the internet I used to read vast amounts of books and a lot of magazines. I don’t read near as many books. Frequently I read a book a little at a time and swap back to the net for quicker articles. Can’t be good.

    I wonder if people who didn’t read books at all now at least read more because of the net. Maybe? Is that a positive.

    • Giovanni Dannato November 4, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      I’ll watch blockbusters to see what’s on the mind of the many. Recently watched Age of Ultron and Jurassic World.
      Both films required silly premises and inexplicable stupidity for the plots to occur.
      I saw from Jurassic world how the cold career woman and the kids with divorced parents is pretty much the new normal for movie audiences.
      Spiderman movies and the superman movie in the 00’s marked the transition period.
      Because superhero movies represent a popular mythology concerning contests over moral values, they’re particularly useful as litmus tests of the public’s mood. Indeed some of my first blog articles ever was about analyzing culture through superhero movies.
      We call ourselves modern but heroes perform the same social role as Hercules, Samson, or Gilgamesh in the ancient world.

      I still read constantly, but it seems less and less from physical books. I use my phone, computer, and kindle devices. Nevertheless, I miss holding a physical book and the smell of ink and paper.

  3. Jones October 30, 2015 at 9:09 am

    Creating a symphony today is tantamount to open rebellion.

    Marinetti’s futurist fusillades with their ZANG TUMB TUMB have not led toward greater works of symphonic and orchestral bombast, with flower, fist, and bestial wail orchestrated and conducted by rebels of artistic mastery and poetic sophistication …

    Instead, the audience has been politely asked to bring their own firecrackers, and would they kindly silence their portable gawkboxes during the performance.

    Yet there are still people trying to make use of the old meanings …

    Strangely enough, you now have to go to the movies for this sort of thing.

    • sunhater November 1, 2015 at 9:42 pm

      I’ve been a fan of soundtracks in general since I got bored of pop music’s brainwashing tunes.
      Classical Music for Opera, Electronic Music for Videogames & Epic Orchestral for Movies.

    • Sam J. August 25, 2017 at 5:39 pm

      Strangely enough it’s never been easier to produce a symphony. You can use a reasonably powerful personal computer and get one of the software packages that has gigabytes of orchestra sound sample and make whatever you want. If you are anal enough you could tweak every sound sample to get those sort of idiosyncrasies that comes from live performers. It could be perfect. Just what you wanted. With enough time put into it I seriously doubt that anyone could tell whether it was a computer sample or live.

  4. sunhater November 1, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    +1000 for a Morrowind citation, now you’ve unleashed the nostalgia.

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