The Walrus: Politics 101 and Culture 2.0

I picked up my first copy of the Walrus in ages yesterday, keen to read Ron Graham’ cover story on why Michael Ignatieff hasn’t “knocked our socks off.” Huge disappointment. The piece is positioned as a view-from-30 000-feet look at the broad sweep of the Liberal party from Pearson through to the present, trying to use that as a larger frame to show why Michael Ignatieff was probably doomed to fail in his ambition to be the new Pierre Trudeau.

Don’t bother. It’s an annoyingly written piece that repeats the long-familiar story of the three Toronto boys who drove down to Harvard and sold Ignatieff a bill of goods,  and presents nothing in the way of original analysis. It’s the sort of article that, after asserting that  Bay Street powerbrokers tend to identify their own interests with those of the nation, feels obliged to punctuate the point  by saying, “As Madame du Deffand is said to have remarked when told of the political philosopher Helvetius’s theory that every action, including generosity and kindness, is based on self-interest, ‘Helvetius has revealed everybody’s secret.'” It’s like John Ralston Saul was stealing in during the night and rewriting Graham’s copy.

Graham also claims that Ignatieff’s memoir/campaign pamphlet True Patriot Love was cut a lot of slack by “most commentators” because “they were his friends, had the same agent, loved the idea of one of their own in power, hated Stephen Harper, or never bothered to read it.” Maybe it’s because I love Stephen Harper, but my recollection is that the book was panned by “most commentators” as an intellectual embarrassment.

So why pick up the new Walrus? For Adam Sternbergh’s  piece about the return of the Kids in the Hall, which doubles as an elegy for the Toronto scene of the mid-1990s, and triples as  a smart comment on how the wonders of Web 2.0 have rendered old cultural forms obsolete.

I’m a sucker for Adam’s writing. I loved The Kids in the Hall, hung out on the edges of the crowd Adam is writing about for a few years (and even saw his sketch troupe, Joke Boy, a couple of times at the Rivoli), and am increasingly interested in the way the elimination of friction points in the transmission of information changes the incentive structure of cultural production.

On this last point: The most interesting thing I’ve read on this is still Lawrence Lessig’s decade-old book Code, which argues that many of the everyday freedoms we take for granted in a liberal society are not due to legal or constitutional protections, but simply because they’re too difficult to enforce. I’ve argued, here and elsewhere, that cool ceased to be a credible political stance when MTV made it impossible for subcultures to hide and flourish for any length of time.

Sternbergh argues that sketch comedy (which he calls “that most Canadian of comic forms”) was killed off by YouTube. Where once you had groups coming together in rec rooms and hashing out sketches, then gathering in teams at clubs and theatres across the city to try to out-funny one another, that energy is now “dispersed online in a thousand digital shorts.”

It’s a smart argument, one I find highly persuasive. Can you think of similar examples — aside from newspapers — of cultural formats that seemed natural but which have been fundamentally altered or made obsolete by the apps and tools and gizmos and tempos of Culture 2.0?

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