Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Generalists in Bubbleland

The lead in TNR's thinkpiece: "Jeopardy is one of the most subversive shows on television." The article goes on to argue that the trivia buff, the type of person Jeopardy celebrates, runs exactly counter to people featured in shows like Survivor and The O.C., which glamorize capitalistic values like entrepreneurism, consumption, and interpersonal savvy. Jeopardy is the anti-Apprentice: Trump's show extols the virtue of Patrick Bateman. Jeopardy lionizes Cliff Clavin, the patron saint of trivia.

As we learn in the article, Jeopardy contestants who make it past the initial screening stages are often painfully shy and introverted. That's no surprise. It takes a pretty solitary lifestyle to accumulate such wideranging encyclopedic knowledge. Unlike most Americans, these knowledge-seekers don't learn so they can use that knowledge in their careers or their daily lives; they're the dysfunctional bookworms that nobody remembers from high school.

But I found the article's conclusion to be a little pat. Brian Monotopli, the author of the piece, wants to pit useless knowledge (knowledge for its own sake) against utilitarianism (knowledge only as use value). That's an important dichotomy, but, by focusing on TV, he exaggerates the irrelevance of trivia in American society. Trivia, if you'll notice, dominates the websites and web communities.

But let's turn first to an issue near and dear to my heart: the demise of the generalist. Just last week I had a long discussion with my friend Angie on the ineffectiveness of general education requirements in college. At the UCs anyway, you can satisfy GE requirements by taking such specialized lower division classes as African-American Film, the Biology of AIDS, French History from 1789-1848, etc. Presumably, the idea is that a student learns who Charlemagne is and how the golgi apparatus functions in high school. While I ran across a number of erudite minds in college, I encountered many more who had just ocean-sized voids in subjects I consider basic knowledge.

Now, as a working adult, specialization is ever more prevalent. Those obsessed with their work become good at it, but they know little else. Europeans (and liberal elitists like me) often bemoan the ignorance of the American voting public. "If they only knew about Bush's lies/incompetence/stupidity on ________" is a typical mantra. But widespread ignorance of public affairs is a consequence of our largely strong, sweat-driven economy. Besides bloggers and other such idlers, Americans work harder and more productively than anyone else. The value placed on work separates us from the lazy Europeans. The typical American auto mechanic is probably more knowledgeable than the typical European one about transmissions; but he's also likely much less likely to have a handle on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Then there's the proliferation of trivia specialists. The internet has created an army of niche obsessives. The hardcore political bloggers can tell you what Bush's latest poll numbers are in West Virginia. The movie nerds can describe Henry Hathaway's directorial style. The gearheads can tell you where to get the parts you need to rebuild your 1962 GTO. Baseball statheads fight over whether Mark Bellhorn's value is best represented by the runs-created metric or OPS.

In an era of ever-greater divisions and segmentation, the "communities" formed by niche obsessives is yet another. I belong to a couple of these niche communities. For good and ill, my involvement with my movie nerd discussion group has led to profound changes in my lifestyle. The internet has allowed for folks with common interests to commiserate across time zones, which is cool. But it leads to ever more compulsive moviewatching habits. You start watching more movies to keep up, going to see marginal films by favored directors like Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf or staying home to watch some obscure Andre de Toth movie on TCM so you can stay with the buzz or come up with respectable top ten lists.

"Knowledge communities" allow us to stop having dialogue with others and just live in our own little bubble. I don't speak about politics with the Fox News-watching attorney across the hall. Instead, I'll rant about Bush with my uniformly liberal friends or post something on The Daily Kos. More and more, we live in a beehive in which every group huddles in their own little echo chamber.