21 January 2010


The Price of Digital Technology

Mr. Lanier was once an advocate himself for piracy, arguing that his fellow musicians would make up for the lost revenue in other ways. Sure enough, some musicians have done well selling T-shirts and concert tickets, but it is striking how many of the top-grossing acts began in the predigital era, and how much of today's music is a mash-up of the old.

"It's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump," Mr. Lanier writes. Or, to use another of his grim metaphors: "Creative people--the new peasants--come to resemble animals converging on shrinking oases of old media in a depleted desert."

-- a New York Times article on the "Internet Delusion"

How disturbingly brilliant!

To borrow the best thing anyone has ever said to me: I don't know if he's right; but I do know that he's on to something.

Forget video killing the radio star! Digital technology is trying to do the same to everyone who makes original music. If you thought that being unable to sell good music without a promotional video was a silly, arbitrary convention, then what do you think of being unable to sell good music without a celebrity persona?

For when music is as free and readily available as it is in this digital age, fans aren't going to pay for quality. They might, on the other hand, be influenced to fork over something for celebrity.

Look closely at the album title.
Robbie is one of those pop stars who is always "on to something."

Of course, I am well aware that blogging about this problem is like bailing water into a sinking boat. (I like ironies.)

Digital technology affects not just music, but anything that can be described as "information"--including literature and curricula.

Perhaps in two or three hundred years we will look back at the twenty-first century and see that no new Great Books were written because people were too busy blogging. On the other hand, we might also discover that hundreds of old Great Books were read, loved, taken to heart . . . and blogged about.

We are already seeing the ugly effects of totally free, readily available, quickly scanned information in students' research papers. (At least I know I have.) It doesn't readily occur to the new digital generation that other people's work is not there to be copied and pasted into their own work. (Mea maxima culpa, of course: how many slide show presentations did I create with images grabbed from the Web? "Do as I say, not as I do," anyone?) The rules against plagiarism--once common sense to everyone, like the rules against crib notes--now have to be painstakingly explained . . . and even complete understanding does not guarantee compliance, because nothing gets damaged and nobody gets hurt.

Digital culture is a culture of impunity.

Now, if I wanted to take the cultural high ground, I'd make this blog private, accessible only to those with invitations (i.e. without anonymity). If I don't, that is because I flatter myself that there are a handful of other readers in the world who would like to be invited, if only they knew of this blog's existence! If this blog went private, we'd never be able to find each other!
(Either way, I'd still be embedding videos and using free images.) Then again, I have a feeling that this opportunity cost is part of the point.

As the term "opportunity cost" suggests (and in case you didn't already know), there are also many economic implications to the openness of digital technology. I've known those for a while, but didn't get bothered until I learned how great the cultural implications were. If the price of free access to everything already great is the death of anything with the potential to be good, is this something we, as a culture, can afford to pay?

Image Source: Reality Killed the Radio Star album by Robbie Williams

No comments: