Sunday 24 November 2013

Effectiveness Case Study: The Odyssey

This is the third post in my attempt to hierarchize media uses according to a utilitarian rubric. My first two posts dealt with James Cameron’s Avatar and Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain. In this post, I examine Homer’s The Odyssey.

When examining The Odyssey, we need to consider the difference between the text’s impact on Ancient Greek society and its impact on contemporary readers. In order to capture The Odyssey’s full impact, we need to average out its strength and quality over the course of its long history. There is likely too much relevant historical information to learn for it to be in anyone’s interests to do a thorough calculation of the goodness of The Odyssey’s consequences. 

At any rate, this problem does not apply to new work, whose evaluations we can update as additional relevant factors arise. The reason for determining media effectiveness is to guide future decision-making, not to create a perfectly ordered list of The Greatest Artworks of All Time. An application of my 8 questions to The Odyssey is only useful insofar as it tests and clarifies our aesthetic intuitions against the usefulness of the 8 questions. In general, it should be assumed that the further in the past a work was created, the less accurate are our answers likely to be.

Strength of Impact:

1.     How many people does the project reach?
2.    How significantly does it impact the people it reaches?
3.    How likely are the people it impacts to spread this impact?
4.    How long lasting is its impact?
5.    How grave was the issue pre-impact?

My answers:

1.     High
2.    Medium
3.    Medium
4.    Medium
5.    Medium

The Odyssey scores almost identical ratings to The Fountain on the Strength of Impact scale. As an iconic work of literature, The Odyssey has reached wide audiences over the course of more than two millennia. In the past, when The Odyssey was understood as a series of morality tales with insight into ethics and history, its impact on Greek society was likely high. At the moment, it is “merely” understood as a great work of literature and cultural document. As a work of great literature, it is likely to lead readers to increased empathy, tolerance, interpersonal sensitivity, social skills, theory-of-mind, and gradual personality change. But a single text is unlikely to have massive effects of these kinds on individual readers.

We should consider that the book’s moral compass may have reflected Ancient Greek ideas, but is not perfectly aligned with most contemporary ethical frameworks. Thus while The Odyssey may have had a civilizing effect on a certain part of the world for a few centuries, it likely also encouraged and reinforced some cruel cultural practices. For instance, the book’s glorification of violence and portrayal of gender roles are not consistent with contemporary Western values.

I averaged the Ancient Greek “High” with the contemporary “Low” for a final score of “Medium” in answer to SoI-2 through SoI-4. SoI-5 received a “Medium” for speaking to centuries of people through harsher, more violent, and less humane times. The Odyssey thus had potential to impact a much more dire environment than do Hollywood films.

Quality of Impact:

1.     How much does it increase the accuracy of people's models of reality?
2.    How much does it improve people's quality of life?
3.    How much more likely does it make people to act altruistically toward others?

My answers:

1.     0
2.    +1
3.    0


Here, The Odyssey received identical scores to The Fountain. But while The Fountain earned its point for provoking thoughts and challenging norms, The Odyssey earns its point for possessing all the benefits of narrative fiction documented by Oatley and The Mar Lab, and for perhaps having a morally refining effect in the distant past.

The Odyssey has little educational value and due to the questionability of some of its moral principles, is unlikely to have net good effects on provoking altruistic behaviour.

The book’s relatively strong Strength of Impact means that its single QoI point may have gone a long way through history. This should not impact decisions on what type of art or entertainment to make in the future, as it’s very difficult to predict with high accuracy that a given work of art will have the same sustained cultural impact on future generations that The Odyssey has had on past ones. I find it hard to believe that any future work of art will ever have a long-term impact that rivals that of The Odyssey. Media producers should instead prioritize work with strong, broad, and immediate impacts.

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