Back in October, I had an interesting conversation with @vossbrink about obviousness. (He has a post branching off the same discussion here.)

Here’s an excerpt:

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca I’m beginning to think you need a photography blog were you just write about popular things you don’t like.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink But really, do I dislike popular things at an unusually high rate?

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Not unusual for someone who’s become an expert — and once people become experts, there’s a tendency to dislike the obvious stuff.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Are you sure you don’t mean “hipster”?

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca So in photography. Popular: Ansel, Frank, HCB, Avedon, &c. All fantastic. But all are too obvious to truly say you like them.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink So, how to evaluate my immense photo-boner for the tremendously obvious Pepper No. 30, then? : )

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Weston doesn’t seem to be big name outside of photography. Which I think is the distinction of what’s popular vs too popular.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Mm, fair. There’s also the question of good vs. important vs. popular. They can vary entirely independently…

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Absolutely. Anne Geddes is popular but not good or important. Ansel is all three. Weston isn’t popular. Muybridge is important.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink And then there’s also “remembered.” Minor White is good and important, but (somehow) semi-forgotten.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Which was a lot of tweets getting to the point where I can say that I think you’re drawn to the good, important, & not popular.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink Ha! But that makes sense. And more to important-but-forgotten than important-and-remembered.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca Exactly. People like Minor White, Roy DeCarava, and Robert Adams.

@kukkurovaca: @vossbrink God, now I’m angry-sad just thinking about those three photographers under that heading. But yeah, to one degree or another.

@vossbrink: @kukkurovaca “The Good. The Important. The Unpopular.” #YourNewPhotoBlog

I have to admit, @vossbrink’s observation re: “expert” resistance to the obvious does pretty well sum me up, and not just as regards photography. For example, it pretty much nails my objections to the prominence of American Gods, which is one of those topics that tends to crop up every year or so. (E.g., here.)

I’m a little uncomfortable with the “expert” label, though. Not that it’s necessarily wrong — as with anything, it all depends on how you define “expert.” My hangup is that I’m keenly aware that, while there are lots of things about which I know much more than most people, there are virtually no topics about which I have an authoritative knowledge.

This is especially true in an area like history of photography — I have no academic background in it, and I’m not especially well-read about it. I’m basically couple of notches ahead of “guy who saw a documentary about something and won’t shut up about it now.” Of course, everything’s relative — but the reason I’m talking about this is that a huge aggravating factor in my nerdrage on certain topics is my awareness that the fluency I’ve built up in most areas is not remarkable and should not be uncommon. I would be happy to be the guy who cultivates eldritch, obscure knowledge. I am less happy to be the guy who knows really basic stuff that seems to have somehow evaporated out of the collective awareness of enthusiasts.

Of course, it may just be that I have wildly unrealistic expectations regarding what’s basic. It is true that we live in post-canonical times, and my belief that any stuff is actually “basic” is poorly founded. (Although don’t count on me giving it up.) But I think there’s a bit more to it, and I think it has to do with the internet. (Get ready for me to sound like a fucking luddite.)

The trouble is that the internet gives the illusion of an instantly accessible depth of obscure knowledge. Years of habituation to tools like Google and Wikipedia have fostered the illusion that all knowledge is out there, and the only barriers to obtaining it are the cost in time, the cost in enthusiasm (nerdiness), and the challenge of sifting fact from pseudo-fact. And that illusion is almost the truth. Very, very nearly. It’s (relatively) easy to find the most astonishingly nerdy shit. But, and here’s the problem, not all equally nerdy shit is equally findable.

The trouble is that the internet’s version of knowledge is mediated by technology, and by communities of users who are in part defined by their access to technology, and by pools of content which are in part limited by their availability in digital form. And in fields where the canon has broken down, or even more so in fields where it was never really codified to begin with, that means that knowledge which does not happen to have tach-savvy champions is much harder to find, and if it happens to be tied into material stuff that simply cannot be found in digital form, or can only be found in shitty digital form, then the internet’s collective consciousness is very likely to start forgetting it. And as more and more people use the internet as their initial means of getting familiar with a certain topic, the gap between what is remembered about that topic and what is forgotten becomes harder to bridge.

Well, no, that’s not true. It’s not that it becomes harder to bridge — it’s that users become less and less likely to bridge it. And bridging it is a relatively simple act — it’s just a matter of seeing a reference, noticing that it’s not something you can find out a lot about online, and then taking some additional step to learn about it. For example, buying a book. But those steps always take time and often take money. In the short term, the net result is that some stuff is a little more obscure than other stuff — not because it’s less important, or less interesting, or more challenging, but simply because it’s less discoverable. In the not-so-short term, the net result is that what we know, as a culture, is going to skew. And in the meantime, people like me — who know just enough to be notice — are going to be pissed off on a regular basis.

PS: That will be offset to some degree in areas where there is a formal academic interest — where people will be forced to acquire broader and deeper knowledge. But academic disciplines and individual departments are often surprisingly cliquish or ghettoized and are unsurprisingly disconnected from popular culture — so their effect in offsetting the loss of information, especially by popular enthusiasts, is somewhat limited.

PPS: Of course, this isn’t really a new problem, is it? The oral tradition->manusript and manuscript->printing boundaries doubtless exhibited the same kind of loss.

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