There are more people alive now than there has been throughout the history of the human race in total. We saturate our planet. Geographers will tell you that if we were to spread out evenly we’d each have 47¾㎢ to live in. But we don’t spread out. We clump together and live packed into apartment blocks that tower upward like sequoia trees in asphalt jungles. Perhaps this way of living exacerbates the problem I want to talk about, but the fact is there is just a heck of a lot of people around these days.
When you combine the sheer volume of human life with the globalisation of thought and culture that cinema, satellite television and the internet have brought, you get a real cultural problem. I’m going to call it ‘static’.
I visited London recently and walked along the South Bank from The Shard to Westminster as the sun set. As I walked by the Globe Theatre a notion that had been forming in my mind crystallised as I thought of Shakespeare and the famous names of old; there’s so many people now in this place that potential great ones are lost in the background noise.
Where are the original thinkers? The great artists? The luminaries? I thought of Dick Whittington setting off for the city where the streets are paved with gold and asked if there was really any opportunity in this place any longer. Does anyone succeed in our time without a huge slopping spoonful of good luck? By extension, do great people stack shelves whilst unremarkable celebrities dominate our culture?
When Shakespeare came to London the population of the city was a little over 100,000. Think of how much more intimate that would have made the place. How much more likely the great people of the age would have bumped into each other. In 2013, London is infested with 8 to 15 million people depending on how you define it. I feel jealous of those that got to live in a time when they shared the earth with so many fewer people.
This vastness of connected humanity means it takes exponentially more effort, money, luck to rise above the static. It’s not enough any more to write a nice song, you have to strip naked and swing on a wrecking ball to get airplay. It’s not enough to paint a beautiful landscape to be a famed artist, you have to set dead animals in formaldehyde or dress like an insane Arnold J Rimmer. You can’t write a great book and have it published and wait for the success you deserve, you must win a prize to gain media attention so your book stands above the others. It goes on and on.
I find myself wondering would Shakespeare have been famous in 2014? Would we even have noticed his talent? Perhaps with such an astonishing talent the question breaks down, but would Beethoven have been celebrated above Lady Gaga or would he have had to create some ‘look’ to get noticed? In an age of X-Factor and Britain’s Got ‘Talent’, would he have been relegated to the classical music charts whilst our inane culture bought the latest nobody’s single in the hundreds of thousands?
I can’t help feeling the age of the great individuals has passed. Now, great scientific advances come from institutions, not individuals. Committees of civic planners shape our cities rather than the great philanthropists of yesteryear. Perhaps nothing has fundamentally changed, but the scale of our numbers now seems to have removed the romanticism, lengthened the odds for individuals and drained our world of personality.
…but I digress.