A few years into your formal education, you start questioning the reasons for learning certain subjects. When confronted, teachers tell you that knowing Mathematics is crucial for your future career development as you will invariably end up in a job where knowing your sums will be essential. Equally, speaking a foreign language becomes important (or at least desirable) for the same professional reasons or for when you will find yourself on holidays abroad and need to read instructions or order food and drinks.
A few days ago, when the debate surrounding which city would be elected UK City of Culture for 2017 (a scheme started in 2009 that can be described as a parochial version of the more encompassing European Capital of Culture initiative that has been running for 30 years), British local politicians argued that the financial value of culture was reason enough to explain the importance of securing the accolade. Figures were hastily put together to illustrate how much money could be expected from sales of exhibition tickets, train and bus fares, hotel rooms, and meals purchased by an overly optimistic number of visitors.
The obsession with the value and influence of subjective manifestations of knowledge has been a hot topic in the debate about new media versus traditional media. A couple of months ago, after having been invited by the British Fashion Council to join an advisory panel of fashion bloggers, I sat around a table with some of my peers to debate, amongst other things how to select or rank fashion blogs that have a significant level of influence. The words ‘select’ and ‘rank’ made me feel uneasy but I listened throughout. Invariably, most bloggers present at the meeting agreed that frequent publishing (normally three articles per week) and a high number of unique readers per blog post was a good indicator of healthy influence. As the group was about to accept these as self-evident indicators, I raised a few questions: How do we define influence? If a blog with a very high readership is extremely badly written and its author does not question information and facts (a number of bloggers are happy to just copy and paste text and images from press releases), can it be considered influential? What about those blogs that publish beautifully written posts once or twice a month and have fewer followers but whose content has a more significant qualitative impact over its readers?
The story that no-one seems to want to accept and debate is that there are unquantifiable levels of influence that are more important than the ones ascertained by the apparent rigour of numbers. Mathematics and foreign languages are important because they allow an understanding of the world and of personal thoughts and emotions in a much richer way that goes beyond rational thinking and the limitations of one’s mother tongue, and the messages conveyed by paintings, sculptures, plays and novels have an extraordinary power to liberate personal feelings and flex critical muscles. Similarly, the value of a blog resides on the quality of its messages as quantitative analytics not only tell you what readers think but their importance varies tremendously depending on who you ask: a few days ago, I typed the name of my blog on a number of websites created to ascertain the worth of other websites and enjoyed reading the most disparate figures about this blog that either made me a pauper or a millionaire.