But not everything is as simple as a nursery rhyme. The paradox is that it takes a lot of time and effort to gain the mastery that lets one achieve some simplicity. The teacher who aspires to explain TS Eliot simply has to master the poetry first. The designer who wants to create a simple design must have the complex aspects of design under her belt. It is not easy. It is seldom comfortable. The rigor of the discipline calls for effort. Probably long and sustained effort. A juggler can juggle three balls in the air and make it look easy, but to make it look easy he must practice long and hard.
That is exactly what professionalism is. But ours seems to be an age of amateurism. Many appear to think slogging is for the slave, keeping your nose on the wheel is for the naïve. Sustained sweat to achieve passing mark, let alone any kind of excellence, is beginning to look scarce.
Social media is currently under a cloud, for it has become clear how extensively it can be misused. Several countries are using a veritable army of trolls to abuse the media and manipulate the minds of its users. Facebook has been caught selling its huge data bank to Cambridge Analytica, which could analyze people’s biases and preferences and sway their political choices by a steady feed of false and misleading news. That danger is real and huge enough, but my present concern is the other danger it reveals.
Social media was trumpeted as the great equalizer. It ostensibly allowed, in fact empowered, everybody to express his or her opinion. No gatekeeper to trammel your views, no editor to water down your words. You see things just as your heart dictates and you say things just as you see them. We supposed it was a vast improvement. If you write a letter to your local newspaper, the probability of it getting published is little better than that of winning a lottery. In Facebook or Twitter, you see your words in print minutes after you have composed them. No hassle, no wait.
Some wiseacre said that a picture was worth a thousand words. And that was long before color photos became dazzling; digital cameras made them cheap and foolproof; you could photoshop your grandmother to look like Margot Robbie. So, though your boyfriend may look like Count Dracula and your child bear a strong resemblance to Caliban, you can splash a thousand pictures of them on Instagram and Pinterest.
When I look at the photographs on social media, the first thing that strikes me is their ghastly quality. With modern cameras, you don’t have to know about aperture, shutter speed or focus; you just have to press a button. The one thing left to do is composition, of which few seem to have any notion. I have occasionally asked those who post a dozen photos at a stroke on Facebook, if they have ever heard of exposure value or depth of field, indispensable for most portraiture and nature photography, and have drawn blank stares. These avid and prolific photographers are clearly averse to anything beyond finger-on-button photography.
When I read a fascinating article in a newspaper or magazine online, I want to know if others are also reacting actively to its ideas and turn to the comments. Once again, the first thing that strikes me is the pathetic quality of the vast majority of responses. Whether the comments are positive or negative, they are couched in a language that can reduce a grammarian to tears. Misused words, erratic punctuation, wild spelling, scant organization. A veritable nightmare of prose, even though every word-processor today comes with spelling, grammar and style checker, besides a dictionary and a thesaurus – all instantly available with a click of the mouse.
When you go beyond the language, the poverty of ideas is breathtaking. One literally must scour scores of comments before one encounters a significant thought or thoughtful analysis. It is not simply an issue of brainwashed partisanship. It seems rather to be an issue of brain-shelved mental indolence. The person who does not want to learn and do any more than press a button on a camera or smart phone is also the person who refuses to do any more than throw out a bunch of words, based on his or her feelings, without a concern for cogency or coherence.
Perhaps that person has let the yen for comfort and ease smother any zeal for quality, the way beautiful Desdemona was smothered by an unthinking Othello.