I have been leafing through issue 38 of The World of Fine Wine. One article that has got me thinking is a book review by David Williams, who is one of the magazine’s best writers. He’s discussing an an anthology of wine writing from The New York Times, but in his introduction he looks at a broader theme: the death of the generalist reader.
The way we access media has changed from a predominantly push to a predominantly pull model, and the internet has hastened this change.
When I was growing up, there were three television channels, a handful of radio stations, and the newspapers. You were given limited choice in what you read, watched or listened to. As a consequence, you often ended up exposing yourself to subjects you had only a peripheral interest in. As a consequence, you developed a relatively broad general knowledge.
Accessing media today is completely different. On the internet, I read only what interests me. Listening or watching to a news bulletin is completely different from accessing the news online. As Williams puts it:
Online we rarely stray into subjects with which we are not already familiar, or in which we don’t already have some level of pre-existing interest. Consequently, we miss out on the serendipitous discoveries we get from a leisurely leaf through the weekend papers. Slowly, but surely, it seems we’re losing sight of the simple joys of being a general reader.
This is one of the reasons I like listening to BBC Radio 4. I am exposed to so many ideas and programs that I’d never have deliberately chosen to engage with. [Also, the horrors of Radio 4 comedy, and The Archers, both of which I switch off immediately.]
Perhaps there is room for a generalist blog, picking up on disparate interesting ideas and stories in much the same way that Radio 4 does?
But back to the pull rather than push model of media access. The biggest danger is that of confirmation bias. We select voices that reverberate with our own beliefs and prejudices. We create a bubble of consistent stories that all reinforce our worldview, which is thus unchallenged and rarely stretched.
I think this sort of confirmation bias happens in the wine trade, and in wine media. We become resistant to new ideas and the selected media we access reinforce our existing mindset. We assume everyone thinks like us. Williams quotes another David, this time Schildknecht, in his piece, suggesting that the way in which the web is configured:
…threatens to spin for each of us a bright and crazy cocoon from which we may never break free, nor wish to
I hope this doesn’t happen, and it is something we all need to be on our guard against. Long live the generalist reader!