Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On not getting the reference: When popular culture fragments

People may disagree about the consequences, but not about the basic fact:  In the United States, as elsewhere in the developed world, popular culture ain't what it used to be.  So many entertainment, educational, and other cultural choices are now available that the mass media are reaching far less massive masses, and common ground can be hard to find. While that makes it easier to enjoy your favorite niches, it's become harder for people to connect.

Herman Melville
I think of this every time someone exclaims about a character in a new TV show I never heard of.  (I don't have cable.)  The other day, someone showed me a New Yorker cartoon of Captain Ahab and a red whale.  Allusions to well-known classics like Melville's Moby Dick may still be safe for most New Yorker readers, but certainly not everyone.

What's especially interesting for me is, naturally, the connection to reward value.  Hearing an unknown reference can make tracking it down reinforcing--sometimes so much so that I head for my computer and do it right away.  Talk about creating motivation.  It's almost like a mystery to be solved. 

What makes it sufficiently reinforcing that this happens?  Lots of factors, of course.  If the reference is made by someone I chat with regularly.  If it's positive and comes up more than once or twice.  If it's relevant to what I do, or something else I find rewarding.  Even if I hear total strangers discussing it, if it sounds sufficiently humorous or important or popular.  You can generate your own list, an interesting exercise in understanding your own motivations.  If I'm crunched for time--recall that we always have choices between different consequences--then I might forget it, or make a note of it for the weekend.

Sometimes the effects are considerably delayed.  I'm not sure what finally did it, but after resisting for years, I finally read the whole Harry Potter series and saw the movies. Now I know what everyone was talking about!

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