KHAN: Don’t read the review

The accessibility of reviews and ratings hinders our ability to discover new media

I've just finished Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and my brain is torn. On the one hand, IMDB is telling me the movie got an 8.3 out of 10 and, according to a commenter, is “one of the best science-fiction films made to date.” On the other hand, I realize that despite its grandiose themes and symbolic motifs, the movie was pretty soulless, its characters emotionally dead and unappealing. I'm torn, then, on whether to like this movie — on whether to acknowledge its presumed artistic greatness, or admit my personal view of its underwhelming emptiness.

While the information age has greatly expanded our access to all types of media, it has also in a sense limited our ability to genuinely discover new media. Netflix suggests to us what shows to start, IMDB rankings indirectly dictate our movie choices and Pandora charts out the future of our musical tastes. Obviously, these sites rely heavily on individual user feedback and reviews, which is primarily the reason why they are so automagically good at finding stuff we like. Without a doubt, the merits of these new methods of media discovery are endless — I would never have found half the music in my favorites playlist had I never used Pandora. But like a mom spoiling her kid, our personally tailored algorithms feed us with media we already love, and not necessarily media that might change our view of the world or jarr us into some new realization. Our computers will never provide for us a chance to jump genres, to try something completely different or truly expand our tastes. They can't recommend to us bizarre things that we might possibly like, if only we knew.

Media conformity is another newer and sometimes disturbing phenomenon of the information age. I can all too easily surf Amazon and read official reviews of books telling me how amazing the work is, and why I must purchase it. “The work of our century.” “A must read.” Seeing the five yellow stars next to a book I'm about to buy gives me a strange sense of comfort on its own, as if I'm fulfilling my duty to society by reading the brand new Pynchon novel that has everyone talking. Reading reviews in and of themselves almost becomes enjoyable, providing me with a contentedness in knowing that I have purchased something meaningful with my money. One might argue that one can simply choose not to read reviews, and this is certainly true. But the fact of the matter is that reviews and ratings are so easily accessible that it has become almost impossible to experience anything without knowing something about its popularity or the general public's opinion of it. Of course, movie and book reviews themselves have existed for decades. But until the rise of the Internet, these reviews were always confined to magazines or newspapers, and weren't readily accessible like they are today. Any nine-year-old of our generation can lookup the rating.

What has been lost in our age, then, is the delicate balance of individuality and patience that accompanies the genuine discovery of media. I remember fondly the hours I spent in my musty old hometown library, scanning the small summaries adorning the backs of books and choosing which ones I would take back home. The risk on which books I picked was high — I could only pick a few (my mother’s strict rule), so I had to choose wisely. It was this risk that made the selecting so fun, and when I finally found an interesting book or series I liked, it was like discovering a sliver of gold amidst piles of rock. As we grow older, some of us lose this magic of discovery, and the media we choose to enjoy become more dictated by an out-of-five rating than by our own gut instincts.

Review reading has become routine for me in recent years, almost to the point of comfortable habit. I rarely watch a movie without looking at its IMDB reviews anymore, or buy a game before looking up its Metacritic rating. When I do read, I tend to actively look for themes or even quickly sparknote the book I'm reading to get the “accepted” view of the underlying patterns. Having the desire to find meaning and symbolism in media is perfectly okay — it’s only when we are compelled to do so just for the sake of adopting how the “experts” view the work that we lose our own interpretations. And while peering at media through an experienced reviewer’s eyes can at times be illuminating, it can simultaneously severely limit the types of media we choose to consume and how we view them.

A few years ago, I took the risk of investing my time into Jostein Gaarder's “Sophie's World.” I had found the book gathering dust at the bottom of the family bookshelf, and without reading the back or looking it up online, I decided to take the plunge and invest some time into the book. This winter break, I finally finished Gaarder’s bizarre masterpiece, and I'm happy to say it has been one of the most eye-opening and philosophical novels I have ever read. Sometimes, it is best to unsubscribe from the critics and simply plunge in.

Hasan Khan is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at h.khan@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories