FOR A SHORT time, the writer George Orwell worked in a book store. There he observed the depressing chasm (as he saw it) between what was praised in public versus what was actually sought and read in private.
Now anyone can reproduce Orwell’s privileged window onto the tastes and interests of the masses, using a tool called Google Trends. The data gathered, stored and organized by the world’s most visited website (that is, Google) have disclosed some useful, interesting and, depending upon one’s temperament, depressing facts. Of the more notorious items, for instance concerning the top countries for pornography searches, you’ve doubtless heard. I didn’t find this bit of news either surprising or offensive. Mostly when you look into the public’s mind you discover a tiresome assortment of mass culture baubles, and you find yourself almost wishing for some spirited deviance as opposed to the sheep-like conformity you instead discern.
Every now and then I do myself the disservice of answering the question What’s on the minds of the people? That answer, invariably, is major league sport and pop stars. Thus, after I’d written about the terrifying and reprehensible attack on Malala Yousafzai and noticed a relative lack of north american interest in this remarkable girl’s endangered life — and a great deal of interest, understandably, in Pakistan —, I visited Google Trends to determine just how much interest there was. In the chart above, you will see a representation of worldwide Google searches comparing interest in Justin Bieber to interest in Malala Yousafzai. A girl who takes on a small army of murderous and well-armed adult males, putting her life in danger to secure rights for women (see blue line) is no match for a teen heart-throb with nice hair (see red line).
Usually at this point a writer of my prejudices and age will avail himself of this opportunity to squeak some sort of snobbish and condescending nonsense about the ignorant popular tastes. Apart from being predictable, and therefore tedious, this line of argument misses a few important points. For one, I like living in a world where people are free to seek out information and entertainment, of whatever character, and have the tools to do so. I would prefer that more people took interest in matters of importance, but as soon as I’ve written down these words I see them for what they are: a subjective taste which I would be loath to impose on others, for reasons of principle. The Internet only “works” if you accept the bargain that most of it will be dedicated to gossip, bad journalism, music of doubtful quality, baseless tirades, self-promotion, and titillation — and so be it. It is at the least a sign of freedom, and certainly of privilege, that huge numbers of people are today able to indulge their momentary curiosity in this way.
The complement which issues from this grant of trivial pursuits is an offer of a small corner for consideration of “important” ideas and issues. Imagine what an unlivable world this would be if everything were serious, high-minded, educational and appealing to a school marm notion of moral obligation. In a world like that (it would be a totalitarian world) trivialities would assume subversive powers. It follows that there is an optimal balance between these arbitrary poles of mine, represented by Justin Bieber and Malala Yousafzai, respectively. I leave it to you to judge if this is so, and to decide how close to or far from this mark our remarkable Internet has brought us.