I have no idea who Chris Hemsworth is. Well, that’s not quite true. I know he’s People magazine’s sexiest man alive. But when I heard that Hemsworth had been bestowed this honor — I rank it somewhere between World Series hero and U.S. senator in the pantheon of American greatness — I had three quick thoughts.
I don’t know who that is.
I am glad I don’t know who that is.
I don’t want to know who that is.
Whether Chris Hemsworth is a singer or an actor — I’m assuming he is one of the two — his anonymity within the confines of my brain has made him a very important figure. He is proof of my cultural ignorance.
Some degree of cultural detachment has always been useful; countercultures are probably as old as the ability to communicate. But now that we have swapped the tidy world of three television stations, a handful of essential magazines and the daily newspaper for an information avalanche that buzzes endlessly in our pockets, that detachment is essential. The flow of information has become so decentralized and democratized that it attacks from all directions.
For all the profound good in bottomless communication, there are dual drawbacks: We’re not only overloaded with information, we’re overloaded with information that creates a linear, near-universal language. Not long ago, you would shrug at the notion of something called an “ice bucket challenge.” Anyone who has looked at Facebook in the last year now knows exactly what those words mean.
Ah, Facebook: The 10,000-pound information elephant in the room. Sure, it’s a valuable means to keep up with your best friend from sixth grade who has moved to Phoenix. But its onslaught of information, and the constant need to reply to that information, is, to me, more exhausting than it’s worth. I therefore don’t use Facebook much, including with my wife, whom I refuse to “friend.” I have a real relationship with her, and I prefer that we communicate the old-fashioned way: “So, how was your day, dear?”
In his look back on the year in the arts, my Tribune colleague Christopher Borrelli called 2014 “The Year Everyone Finally Knew Everything About Everyone and Everything.” He invoked email, tweeting, the iPhone, the iPad and the Kindle in a matter of sentences to make the point that we have reached near informational omniscience. It’s an apt observation, and the reason that I am so pleased not to know who Chris Hemsworth is — nor for that matter, to have knowingly heard a song by Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj. (However, I know that “Call Me Maybe” song, and I quite like it.)
While some of my ignorance surely reflects getting older in a world where entertainment is geared toward 23-year-olds, that isn’t the whole of the matter. For instance, “Seinfeld”: I’ve never much watched or liked the show, a sentiment that is near-heresy in my overeducated urban liberal world. When presented with a life circumstance (nearly any, really), I know too many people who will talk of “the episode where …” without even bothering to stipulate that they’re talking about “Seinfeld.” It’s just understood.
That is, understood by everyone but me. I’m well-versed in the first 10 years of “The Simpsons,” the Beatles catalog and the Bears roster, but when it comes to “Seinfeld” — or Taylor Swift or Chris Hemsworth — I wear my ignorance like smiley face emoji.
I don’t say this as a crabby cultural Luddite, and I do not begrudge anyone who adores Chris Hemsworth (whoever he is) or Nicki Minaj (for people even more checked out than me: She’s a singer). I say this as an opportunity to pause, take stock and take a breath. Back when I was an idealistic youth, an English professor remarked how little individuality we truly possess. I disagreed with all the fervor I could muster: We can be who we want! Individualism rises above social norms! His retort amounted to, “You’ll figure it out.”
All these years later, I half agree with him. I believe we decide every day who and what we are; if we want to relish the comfort and predictability of walking the same route to work every morning, we can do that. If we prefer different paths to discover new things, we can do that, too. But that professor was also right: We exist largely in the same cultural blender, with a shared notion of success, popularity and what it means to be entertained.
All of us should be true to what we like — Hemsworth, Minaj, ice bucket challenges, whatever — but we’re all better off for choosing deliberately and maintaining a slice of cultural ignorance that is uniquely our own. It leads to varied conversations and points of view. We’re best when we relish the small differences among us, because it sometimes seems small differences are all that remains.
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