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Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 12:01 am

Telling good from bad

“Everything’s on the Web.” It’s laughably untrue, but there is still too much stuff for most of us to make sense of. Thus the debate now raging on the Internet – by which I mean a lot of people are talking out loud to themselves – about the rise of the online curator.

Curators are the people who know what is important to know. They acquire knowledge within their field, organize it and make judgments based on it. While the phenomenon of the curator is new to the Web (and to young people who mistake the Web for the world) curators have been fixtures in the real world for a very long time. Newspaper, magazine and book editors function as curators, among other roles. So do critics. (In high school I subscribed to Downbeat magazine, from which I learned which jazz artists smart people in New York City thought were worth listening to.) There are many others.

At their best, curators help the curious tell a legitimate work of a given kind – a painting, say, or a baseball card – from an imitation, teach them how to look at objects and paintings, how to compare one work to another, one school to another, one period to another, and so equip them to judge good work from bad. Library collections are curated too, if not by experts then by people who know where to consult the experts. Years ago, I set out to give myself a rudimentary education in classical music. I found that I could trust anything in the classical section of the Lincoln Library’s collection of vinyl to be a first-class work performed by capable artists. Diligent borrowers like me, having learned from the choices of the library’s staff, thus learned how to make our own choices in the future.

The Internet, then, did not create the cultivated amateur curator, even if it has made them more useful. Every town has always had them in the person of hobbyists and enthusiasts. In the days before video, Springfieldians who wanted to see films reckoned to be worth watching – foreign mostly but also superior genre movies from Hollywood directors – had to drive to Champaign-Urbana or St. Louis. Or they could attend the showings at Springfield College in Illinois of 16mm versions arranged by the Shoestring Film Society, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lincoln Library’s Jim Huston. Dave Leonatti’s Nightsounds program on WUIS-FM is a reminder that radio DJs (at least those on independent or public stations) have long functioned as curators of the eccentric, the overlooked, the forgotten and the exotic in music.

Such people are what online curator Maria Popova (“Brainpicker”) has described as interestingness hunter-gatherers who (as one fan put it) go around and learn all this stuff so we don’t have to. Happily, such enthusiasts have a powerful urge to share. Ron Davis was the manager of Appletree Records in the 1980s, or rather he is the music fan who also managed the store. He always had heard something new (at least to you) he thought you might like, and he usually was right. Because of Ron my music library includes the likes of Richard Thompson, Amalia Rodrigues (the great Portuguese fado singer) and the ill-fated albums by Alex Chilton’s Big Star.

The curator’s role is disputed, or at least resented, by the many Americans who think the mere possession of knowledge to be presumptuous and anti-democratic. Much of this resentment should be dismissed as yahoo-ism, but some gripes are well-deserved. Too many credentialed curators rationalize the tastes of the establishment in charge at the time. Too many of them obscure what they know to preserve their status as priests with exclusive mastery of the arcana of art or music or whatever. Fine arts curators in particular are very bad about this; the labels on the wall on most art exhibitions are as unintelligible to the non-academic visitor as the old Mass must have been to the worshipper not versed in Latin.

The new masters of the world beguile us with technology that promises to replace curators with something even better – machines capable of exercising critical judgments. Pandora, the Internet “radio station,” decides what you will like by what it knows about what you already like. Pick an artist and its computers will find others like her by measuring more than 400 different musical attributes that compose elements of 2,000 focus traits such as rhythm and tonality. No human can master a large catalog in such detail. Of course, Pandora can’t anticipate different kinds of music you might also like, the way Ron does, but then Pandora is new to the business.

The heyday of the online curator, alas, promises to be brief. The Internet also destroys the presumptions of knowledge itself. Customer rankings and user tags make it possible for curatorial judgments to be made by the masses. All one needs to know to decide the quality of a song or a book or a politician is to count.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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