The Mere-Cutting Effect and rediscovering slow-media

(thank you Carel Alberts for being an editor extraordinaire)

As always seems to be the case with me, a recent 2-hour flight became a rare and memorable time to consume some slow media.

Why is it a thing? I suppose life happens and I tend to turn to paper when I must, using it to catch up with a favourite journalist, author or magazine. And every time, without fail, I’m emotionally reunited with the media I stopped buying years ago, when my digital device became my data-slash-content source of choice, and anything longer than a paragraph just didn’t have the power to titillate me any longer.

This time, my hand was forced by the dastardly ineffective administration at (the French) Charles De Gaulle. I was the lucky recipient of a few extra hours to consume media, and with my batteries running low (not a metaphor), the recurring prospect of dead tree media emerged once more.

My sustenance, owing to the limited availability of English titles anywhere in France (and with Wired a pale shadow of its former self), was to come from The Economist, whose quarterly, Intelligent Life, is an absolute delight.

I felt such profound forgotten wonder in encountering writing of that caliber in this day and age that I was twice surprised, but I’m going with it, so let me say this: What a pleasure to find such vivid literature! What coruscating intelligence shimmered from that dead wood, without the glare of an LCD screen!

From start to finish I had to pause after each paragraph, just to let each new avalanche of synaptic connections do its combustible business. Slow media is not dead! Instead, it has become a connoisseur’s product, each instance a valued artefact to savour, like dark chocolate or an excellent Ethiopian coffee.

One article in particular jumped out at me, in a way encapsulating and elucidating the challenge of slow media in the digital world. Headlined OVEREXPOSED? (in the print edition), it wields such rare eloquence that, quite manifestly, it could never work on a blog, web page or, for that matter, any digital medium. It’s too damned good. More specifically, it is too choice. Too much went into it, and too little will be got out of it by voracious content omnivores with no time.
The basic premise of the piece (by London-based author Ian Leslie @mrianleslie ) was THE MERE-CUTTING EFFECT, the result of a social experiment by Cornell University academic Prof James Cutting. Cutting posed the impetuous question: What makes (fine) art great? What transpired was counter-intuitive, to say the least. Other than reaffirming the role of standard snobbism (which drives cultural elites’ belief that they are the gatekeepers of a secret knowledge of what constitutes great art), the experiment turned all other pre-conceptions on their collective head.
Most startlingly, Cutting determined in his series of social experiments that his students tend to call art great the more they are exposed to it.
Naturally, this opens up a new line of enquiry into our own appreciation of art. From this we can plainly see that the current grandmasters of the form were ‘made’ by six benefactors in the late 19th century. Their preferences were the ones that, through frequent exposure, came to be considered great.
But before I get side-tracked completely, let me end this aside by seriously recommending that you buy Intelligent Life and enjoy giving your brain a dust-off.
But in conclusion, what of media? In my view, traditional media is struggling to survive without the benefit of the critical exposure threshold it has crossed, into negative territory. It understands that it has to play Starcraft 2 (by which I mean rolling out one blog after another) but it is trying to play the new game with the rules of backgammon., Rather than adapting to the rules of the game the 20th century media barons are trying to force new business (Star Craft 2) through familiar hoops (Backgammon).
Success (another blog post coming on the definition of what success really is) is due to exposure. Not just media but any product (Psy’s Gangam Style anyone?) Its a life lesson that is so cliched but so true. It has been around since our ape days and in our mirror-selfie exposed society its more true than ever before. The point is, as with any piece of great art humans are all works of great art, all we need is an audience. But as with Ian Leslie’s fantastic article great art is about the content. If you want to be a work of art you have to have the substance to be so, and no amount of self promotion will make your audience appreciate you more if there is no content to you. Because the Mere-Cutting effect has a flipside, exposure and appreciation leads to criticism as well and a sham is getting easier to spot.

The old world of waffling media, art, business cases etc is over. Substance does win out over style because as it has been proven, style is an artificial construction. And Ian Leslie, keep on writing your content is Art