Cornell came down with “Bieber Fever” last week, and there was no cure in sight.
After a less than reputable website published an “exclusive” interview with the teen singer suggesting he was joining next year’s freshman class, students and local news outlets were abuzz at the possibility that Bieber was coming to Ithaca. In one day’s time, the interview garnered almost 100,000 hits and more than 10,000 “likes.” And if the Facebook activity serves as any indication, it seems clear that many actually believed (beliebed?) that Bieber was bringing his talents to the Hill.
Dare I ask, what might this ordeal say about our society and culture?
For starters, the Bieber spectacle speaks to the extent to which many are willing to believe almost anything that’s reported, no matter the absurdity of the source or the claim. In an age in which anyone can publish a story online and video editing can work wonders, the public’s credulity can prove dangerous, especially when the subject matter is more serious than whether one “Daniel Salkony” was able to score an exclusive with Justin Bieber. Now more than ever, arriving at the truth requires serious and critical thought.
Increasingly, though, it seems like serious and critical thought, along with any semblance of nuance, are things of the past. And if there’s one place where the limits of such thought and nuance will be tested, it’s the election campaign, which is about to kick into full swing. Already, it is clear that social media, flashy videos and catchy sound-bites will be used to target young voters. In an age when some of the smartest students in the country believe J-Biebs is making his way to Cornell, I can’t say I’m terribly confident about the youth’s ability to parse fact from fiction, election politicking from huge distortions of a candidate’s record.
The Bieber spectacle is also indicative of the limit of our collective attention spans. As the Facebook statuses about Justin became suffocating, I couldn’t help but think back to the last Facebook bonanza, Kony 2012. As Brian Stelter wrote in The New York Times a few weeks ago, the Kony campaign illustrated just how quickly stories can go from viral to practically invisible. Consider that of the more than seven million hits on Kony’s Wikipedia page, five million came in the first three days of the campaign alone. By way of contrast, the page now attracts fewer than 15,000 views a day. I’m confident the Justin Bieber rumors will suffer a similar fate, and that in a few weeks time, virtually no one will remember that Justin Bieber was going to Cornell for all of two minutes.
Let us all breathe a collective sigh of disappointment.
That said, the shortening of our collective attention spans often has disastrous effects on the way we interact with our world. Big issues, important issues — issues unlike whether Justin Beiber is in fact attending Cornell — require long attention spans. They do so, not only because of their complexity, but also because of the historical baggage that invariably accompanies them. Want to understand our economic woes and how to move forward? You’ll have to understand what happened in the lead up to 2008, to say nothing of Keynesian and anti-Keynesian economic thought. Never has there been a time in history in which so many people have had such widespread knowledge of causes, issues and concerns. At the same time, though, it seems like the knowledge is increasingly and stupefyingly superficial.
Finally, that 100,000 people invested such intense interest in a bogus article about Justin Bieber is saddening. Mind you, I enjoyed the rumor as much as the next person. But to read people actually debate why Justin would or would not go to Cornell in online forums, and get seemingly irate about it, offered a new perspective on the debacle. At some point one has to ask: Have we nothing better to do with our time? Are there no more important issues? When older generations write about the coarsening of our culture, surely this is some part of what they have in mind.
A higher education, it seems, should be a call to resist “Bieber Fever:” it should be a call to think deeply and critically, to differentiate truth from fiction, facts from hitherto unproven assumptions. A higher education should be a call to engage with meaningful issues on a meaningful level and to dedicate significant time to doing so. A higher education should be a call to struggle with difficult and “big” questions — and to act. Can a higher education be all that?
Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.