For all it’s worth: On quantifying the influence and value of emotions, culture and critical thinking

When you are a child and reach a certain age, your parents and other adults tell you that it’s time to start going to school. It seems exciting that you are now able to join other children of the same age in a group in a place other than your house, but no-one tells you the exact reasons why you have to do it.

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.

All these explanations by adults come across as feeble aphoristic attempts to use reason that neither answer your questions nor make sense. In addition, no-one tells you that such a form of explaining what you don’t understand is a clever argumentative ruse to be used not only during your school years but throughout your life.

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 debate about quantifying subjective matters continued in the global media as economists debated the value of Twitter shares and income derived from its exchange in recent weeks. The worth of social media is something that everybody understands as being very high but that no-one seems to be able to explain why: are the measly cookie-based advertisements on the side of your Facebook profile really influencing your purchase habits or are they just irritating? Have the billion of free tweets published over the years made Twitter any real money? And are the millions of images floating around on Instagram having a long-lasting impact on anything or anyone at all?

At the root of this situation is the relatively recent reinterpretation of the expression ‘cultural industries’. Coined by critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and used in the chapter ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), the term’s underpinning irony was lost as it was reappropriated (and, in many ways, misused) over the last couple of decades to explain to the world that culture has a quantifiable level of influence legitimised by its role in creating job opportunities and generating financial profits. Years down the line, and with a global financial recession decimating the art world and culture in general, guess what? It hasn’t. However, it is undeniable that culture and critical thinking play key roles in the welfare of individuals. Just ask people who grew up in Scandinavian nations, where the institutional support of education and the arts exists merely because a well-informed citizen is a better citizen.

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.

The truth is that there is a more important value in manifestations of artistic and critical thinking than dreamt in the philosophy of financial profit. Quantifying the worth of education and culture is a redundant exercise as they are subjectively enriching and uplifting processes that make the lives of individuals better. If you need to quantify the value of a play, a blog post, a short story, a film or a dance performance beyond their entertainment impact, you should start by asking yourself how much and how often did one of those manifestations make you think and feel. The more engaged you felt or reacted to one of those activities on an emotional and intellectual level, the more influence they had over you. Ultimately, culture and critical thinking elevate your wellbeing and improve how you relate to other people; and, for all they’re worth, that is their priceless value and influence.