Alessandro Baricco, The Barbarians

"The Barbarians" – An Essay on the mutation of global culture and a fundamental shift in how meaning is made

"The Barbarians," originally serialized in an Italian newspaper in 2006, has finally made its way into English. Highly acclaimed Italian author Alessandro Baricco pens a manifesto on how connectivity is changing the way we experience global culture. In his essay, Barrico shows how cultural arenas, such as wine, soccer, books, and music have been plundered in what may feel like - at least to the traditional gatekeepers of high culture - a sort of barbarian invasion. He defines this not as a war between old and new, but rather as an avoidable mutation we are all a part of, whether we like it or not.

Barrico presents his arguments in an entertaining and conversational prose. In the old world, he posits people would assign meaning to things based on depth and quality, defined by few elites in the cultural realm. The church, the aristocracy, and cultural producers held the power to delineate and cultivate talent for the rest - the Barbarians - to follow. A person’s sense of cultural worth, or whether they arrived amongst the cultural elite was based on how fully they comprehended the depths of meaning, and how hard they worked to get there. 

Barrico compares this to a wide-scale mental and architectural restructuring resulting from new pervasive technological forces such as Google. As an example, he draws a direct connection between Google Co-Founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin’s scientific upbringing to show how Google’s search architecture transfers the peer review process of scientific journals into the cultural realm. In other words, just as more positive peer reviews of an article assign it more scientific value, society as a whole has learned to value things based on the number of clicks in a Google search, irrespective of quality or depth.

The results of these simple yet fundamental changes are manifold - "A technological innovation shatters the privilege of a caste, making a form of action possible for a new population."This in turn allows "Commercial bliss to take up residence in the expanded playing fields,"and redefines "Spectacularity as the only untouchable value." Where old elites searched beyond current culture to find meaning, Barbarians simply search for something different in a new process of "Simplification, superficiality, speed, and middlingness." Like excited atoms, they are utterly concerned with being on the move, of rapid experience along the surface of things. Barrico calls this “surfing”, just as we have learned to do on the Internet.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of this entire essay is its timeliness. For 2006, "The Barbarians" describes numerous trends only now emerging, written years before Twitter even hit the Web - the ultimate tool for surfaces, rather than depths. In optimistic defense of the mutation, Barrico convinces us, despite a deep desire to resist, that there is no other way but to embrace this fundamental shift in the “what constitutes experience” and how meaning is made.

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