Sorting Mechanisms

Not perfectly grouped, but far from random.

I’ve often thought about opening a pool room, but I know the likelihood that I’d attract the crowd that comes to pool rooms. (The American Poolplayers’ Association guide for league operators literally has pages of instructions on how to handle match outcomes if they’re interrupted by a brawl. I don’t think the Royal and Ancient Rules of Golf, for instance, laid that out in such detail.) But I think I could forestall most problems by instituting four basic business practices:

  1. No coin-operated tables
  2. No domestic beer.
  3. No televisions.
  4. No jukebox, and the sound system playing chamber music.

The kinds of people who cause problems in poolrooms wouldn’t stay more than five minutes in this one, and it would leave the place for the grown-ups.

I was put in mind of this on Sunday, when I went to the political meet-up I described a few days ago. They had a trio performing there—guitar, mandolin, upright bass. All three were good technicians on their instruments, all good singers… and I had no more interest in listening to that music than I would in watching football. Music is a remarkable sorting mechanism, dividing us not by talent but by culture.

And music isn’t alone. Every art and every craft attracts a body of people committed to that mode of work, even as others find it incomprehensible or dull. All of writing is a sorting mechanism, with readers bumping off the gates until we find the slot that fits us. Contemporary Christianity is a blizzard of incompatible readings of the same book, with literally thousands of denominations each believing that they have the direct track to divine truth (not to mention those billions of other people who are adherents of their own books of wisdom, each of those communities also subdivided into incompatible sects). Auto racing is just as sectarian as religion: Nascar, Indy car, rallies, off-road, dirt track, drag racing, F1, CanAm, monster trucks—each with committed fans who wouldn’t spend a dollar to see the others.

I just read a term yesterday that’s undoubtedly been around for a decade or more: the splinternet. We can now tune our cultural consumption to only those things that please us. I grew up with what were called “variety shows” on television, the most famous of which was hosted by Ed Sullivan on CBS on Sunday nights. An hour-long episode of the Ed Sullivan Show had eleven or twelve acts, almost always including a crooner, a pop music act, a rock music act, a stand-up comic, a comedy sketch, a big choreographed dance number, and a juggling or tumbling act. The Muppets were an early and frequent part of the show. My mother and I both watched it together every week.

The variety show fell victim to the more sophisticated demands of advertisers in the 1970s. Mere size of audience was no guarantee of advertisers’ happiness; they wanted demographics, wanted shows that would subdivide a mass audience in order to more directly target the likely buyers of their cars or foods. TV shows were the first data-harvesting tools of the modern era, allowing us to be micro-targeted with pop-up advertising (then, of course, just called commercials.) A show that a junior-high kid could watch with his 50-year-old mother did not suit the demands of the marketeers.

There are no right answers to this, just as there are no right answers to any social question. I miss the idea of the variety show, the common knowledge on Monday morning of what every kid would have seen the night before. And yet, I’m as guilty as anybody of watching TV almost exclusively now on YouTube, consuming only eight-minute bits of an hour-long show already pretty tightly targeted. I’ve never watched an entire episode at its scheduled time of the things I seek out in scraps: Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Graham Norton, Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. We microdose on our culture.

The question, I think, is whether we can encounter variety without needing to demean it or brush past it. And that’s hard, even for those of us who try to be well-meaning. I too often recoil from or just ignore the unfamiliar, and I have to challenge myself often to find the beauty in something that isn’t immediately apparent to me. It’s usually there, if I can slow down and look.

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