Hey, I just learned me a new word: agnotology. It’s strangely appropriate that I didn’t know it until recently because according to the LA Times it’s the academic study of ignorance, a subject that’s always fascinated me. Robert Proctor, the academic discussed in the article, focuses on the way that big business creates and manipulates ignorance to its own ends: I’m fascinated by the gaps in people’s knowledge, what we can assume people know or don’t know, how to tread the line between going way over your audience’s head and patronising the poor buggers. It’s all about constructing a cultural canon in an environment in which most people have access to unprecedented levels of knowledge at the flick of a finger but simply can’t be arsed to go there.
This comes into the frame when I’m at work: do I need to explain where Bavaria is; that Sancerre is a wine; who makes Birkin bags and why that matters? If I don’t tell them, will they Google it? Probably not. But it’s more complex than that. Only the other day I was confronted with the following sentence: “Venezia is the Italian spelling of Venice, Italy.” It’s factually accurate and grammatically correct but ultimately so wrong-headed it achieves a kind of lop-sided beauty all of its own. Knowledge, but no understanding. And I’m not released from such obsessions when I’m off duty. Last week I was listening to a semi-final of the quiz show Brain of Britain on Radio 4, in which the contestants were asked to identify what sort of musical instrument an 808 was. The first chap thought it might be some sort of drum, which was judged to be not quite enough, so the others threw various percussive guesses into the mix, oblivious to my screaming, “It’s a drum machine it’s a drum machine you idiots it’s a bloody drum machine for crying out loud!” at them until I was curled up under the table, sobbing to a four-on-the-floor beat.
When I’m a professor of agnotology that’s going to be my first lecture, pretty much.