The Gathering Twilight, Part the Second

Gary Jones at Muck and Mystery takes on a piece about Jaron Lanier’s new book that caught my eye as well.

My negative reaction to Lanier’s views wasn’t quite as strong as Gary’s was, but I had some similar feelings. I think what Lanier says about the economics of cultural production is basically true, in some respect. As Gary notes, cultural monopolies of various kinds were profitable for much of the 19th and 20th Century, at least for the folks who were at the top of various productive hierarchies. The entrepreneurial revolution which began with post-Gutenberg literature moved steadily through other cultural media and forms, and a lot of people earned both spectacular wealth and ordinary livelihoods as that wave spread.

Lanier’s quite right that this economy is seriously threatened now. It relied upon scarcity and it relied upon a closed shop in order to produce for those at the top of those systems of production and those further down the pyramid. Modern cultural production has always had its doubles, however, who did not realize value primarily through the sale of cultural products and who were seriously impeded by the way that copyright and control of dissemination interfered with their own work. Academia is one of those doubles: the circulation of academic knowledge was and remains impeded by many profit-seeking publishers, when all that most academics ever wanted to do was accrue reputation capital through dissemination.

Still, I also think there’s something to Lanier’s point that there are aesthetic as well as livelihood costs to an open-source paradigm for producing culture. I tend to think a bit about digital games that have significant systems dedicated to user-produced content. You come across maps or skins or quests that are both brilliant and something that the main designers would never have thought to make. And you come across a huge number of totally shit disasters that make you sorry you ever heard of video games. That’s both because creativity isn’t evenly distributed and because not very many people have both the time and the resources to do something that’s basically a big gift to the world, which will produce no value for themselves. Even in the best cases, however, user-created content has a diffuse sort of feel to it, without the coherence and tightness that a work which has the full force of a controlling author backed by a publishing institution can sometimes create.

It’s a different kind of culture, and that’s not always a good thing. Lanier may also have a point about the economic circumstances that will confront culture-makers in the mid-21st Century. Gary is hopeful that we’ll soon know who the real creators among us are, that we’ll be freed from the kind of middlemen who don’t greenlight the right movies, pass on the best manuscripts, sneer at the art which inspires the world, judgments which are only corrected through the serendipitious interventions of other middlemen at some later date. But I do wonder if the real creators are going to be rewarded commensurately with their talent, should an open-source culture be better at finding and recognizing them. One thing you could say for the high-water mark of the old culture industry from about 1920 to 1990 or so, we often held our best authors and poets and musicians and filmmakers in high esteem and paid them well beyond a living wage.

If the economics of cultural production are changing, however, I think that both Lanier and folks like Lawrence Lessig on the other side of the issue are sometimes trapped in a debate about copyright and digitization that misses some important fundamentals that have nothing to do with any of that.

There’s two important factors at play in the consumption of culture that don’t tend to enter into the sound and fury around intellectual property. The first is time, specifically leisure time. If the 1950s-1990s were a highwater mark for the commodification of culture in the United States, it’s partly because they were also a highwater mark for the sequestration of leisure time from labor time. For the last three decades, working Americans have seen that leisure time slowly clawed back for the sake of work or for the sake of a productivist temperment even outside of work, towards a belief that the things we do should somehow always be generating value, towards a classically bourgeois construction of virtuous leisure. This is what a lot of folks writing about childhood have been commenting on lately, that middle-class children have been increasingly yoked to the proposition that what they do when they are not in school should still somehow be productive of skills and talents which will have value later in life.

The consumption of popular culture can sometimes get a piece of that action, but the less leisure time we have, the less we can watch or play or read.

When the vector of decreasing leisure time crosses the other major vector of the past fifty years heading in the other direction, namely the increasingly affordable availability of vast catalogs of cultural works, you’re heading for a kind of trouble which has nothing to do with intellectual property rights. We can buy or otherwise obtain the rights to view or read or listen to almost all commercial television programming, almost all films, virtually all video games, and so on now. Old comic books that I once would have had to prowl to find are reprinted as trade paperbacks. I can search online catalogs and find used books that would have taken me a lifetime to track down. And what drove the boom time sales in many media forms in the 1990s was precisely this availability and affordability: consumers took the opportunity to build libraries of material that previously would have been possible only for a wealthy and eccentric collector.

The thing is, once you’ve got it, you don’t want much more. The production of new material in any medium, whether it’s by old-style publishers or new media creators, can’t possibly keep pace, can’t possibly provision us with novel experiences which demand that we continue to buy or rent or consume culture at the same pace. There aren’t enough new people coming into the system who want to build libraries themselves, and in any event, some of them inherit the libraries of their parents or siblings or friends. Most of us don’t want a new device or technology for viewing or reading or consuming culture, either. What we have is good enough, and many people have gone through at least one or two cycles of replacing already acquired works, enough to know that they don’t want to do it again and don’t have the resources to do it again anyway.

More importantly, the affordances of time which drove the desire for more cultural product are steadily vanishing in the economy of the moment. Those who have jobs are more and more compelled to give as much as they can to them, those who have families feel more and more obliged to overparent their children. Productivism again reigns as a supreme bourgeois virtue. Time spent just listening or reading or viewing, if you can’t recuperate it as time getting educated or improved in some tangible way, is shameful time, not a shared triumph of the middle-class milieu. Those who don’t have jobs or whose livelihood hangs by a thread are hardly in a mood or a situation to snap up those bargain-priced DVDs.

So that’s what makes the situation of cultural producers darker than it once was. It’s a pretty fundamental thing: too much product, not enough buyers. I love a world where lots of poets and singers and journalists and video game designers make a solid living. And yes, Lanier’s right that the world of the future will be less like that than the world of the past, which I think is a sad thing. If that world is constricting, though, best to stop blaming it on kids downloading or the online mob. Look instead to making the circumstances of economic and social life more favorable once again to time spent on poetry and song and news, and don’t expect the good old days of rampaging purchases of back catalogs to come again any more than you’d expect a played-out mine to suddenly magically replenish its ore.

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