Sunday, 12 October 2008

Quantity vs quality

I'm getting a bit fed up with sites that list their 'top articles' or 'top buys'  - selected purely by number of clicks.

We say we want individual experiences - to be able to see something unusual, out of the ordinary. Yet we travel to places that are in the press, taking our cue from other travellers. We want to read the best travel writing - yet we somehow believe that it's the file that has been most downloaded that is the best.

It's a real pity, because the Internet, with its potential for one-to-one as well as one-to-many (broadcast) interaction,  is a medium that should be tailormade for special interests. But instead, it's become a prisoner to the mass  - obsessed with the quantity rather than the quality of links, with getting hits instead of developing debate, simplistic voting replacing educated peer review.

Quality sometimes accompanies popularity. The Alhambra, or St Peter's Rome, are popular sights - and at the same time two of the greatest  monuments of art and architecture in Europe. But come on; MacD and Burger King are two of the most popular restaurants in the world. Does that mean they are better quality?

Besides, if you really want to understand the cultures that produced the Alhambra and St Peter's, you need to visit some of the smaller gems too. The Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo, a perfect Arab  throne room tucked away   in a rambling garden off a Granada side street; the church of Sant'Ivo della Sapienza, at the bottom of the long, thin courtyard  of the Pontifical University, or Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte,  a church where the Baroque fascination with death becomes all-encompassing, with little skeletons and skulls hiding everywhere in the architecture.

I've come to detest these '100 things to do before you die' lists. And the parasitic 'things not to do before you die' lists that have started to spring up. The attraction is that of the tick list - 100 great books,   as if once you've read everything in Reader's Digest, that's all you need to know about Western civilisation.

Because in fact your hundred things to do are different from mine. Because we are different people.

Istanbul, for instance, was always high on my list. I have a fascination with cities that keep regenerating themselves, from empire to empire, always changing and yet somehow unchanged. Rome, for me, is a city of endless fascination,  with its  onion-skin layers of history  - the Republic, the Empire, the Papacy, Mussolini's fake-Imperial, the foundations of each regime resting on the ruins of the past. That's why Istanbul appealed, with its layers of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern life.

I like routes with a structure. Pilgrimage routes, trade routes, traditional roads.  The Camino de Santiago, one great road from Le Puy to Santiago, or the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, or perhaps, one day, the Silk Road. (When I was younger I loved Elroy Flecker's 'Golden road to Samarkand'.)  For me, there's a spiritual dimension to walking, to the act of placing one foot in front of the other. Writers like Joe Simpson find that spiritual dimension in climbing , in the edge of danger - I find  it  in the inevitability of the dull trudge. Our lists are different - the Eiger or Bridalveil Falls against the Pennine Way and the Via Tolosana.

Besides, we may be looking at the same thing and seeing different aspects.   I want to visit India, soon; and I'm as interested in visiting Bangalore's modern software centres as I am in seeing the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal. It's the intersection of modern and ancient that intrigues me.   And we have different expertisesand experiences to channel our interests -  one of the great delights of Paris, for me, is the fantastic variety of organs, from the  m ulti-manual, hundred-plus-stop Cavaillé Coll monsters to the plangent baroque tones of the organ that François Couperin played. A whole sonorous banquet.

So ignore the top 100 lists. If we all did the same 100 things before we died, the world would be a sad place, full of identikit clones.

1 comment:

  1. The font used for this post inadvertently provided a delightful malapropism - the letter c and the letter l next to each other reads as follows:

    "I’m getting a bit fed up with sites that list their ‘top articles’ or ‘top buys’ - selected purely by number of dicks."