The People’s Platform: How “free culture” stifles the creative middle

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The culture of listicles and Instagram makes it harder for the creative middle — people who are neither superstars like Beyonce, or amateurs working for free — to make a living, while enriching the Googles, Facebooks, and Amazons of the world. Tim Wu reviews The People’s Platform” by Astra Taylor for _The New York Times:

Astra Taylor is a documentary filmmaker who has described her work as the “steamed broccoli” in our cultural diet. Her last film, “Examined Life,” depicted philosophers walking around and talking about their ideas. She’s the kind of creative person who was supposed to benefit when the Internet revolution collapsed old media hierarchies. But two decades since that revolution began, she’s not impressed: “We are at risk of starving in the midst of plenty,” Taylor writes. “Free culture, like cheap food, incurs hidden costs.” Instead of serving as the great equalizer, the web has created an abhorrent cultural feudalism. The creative masses connect, create and labor, while Google, Facebook and Amazon collect the cash.

Taylor’s thesis is simply stated. The pre-Internet cultural industry, populated mainly by exploitative conglomerates, was far from perfect, but at least the ancien régime felt some need to cultivate cultural institutions, and to pay for talent at all levels. Along came the web, which swept away hierarchies — as well as paychecks, leaving behind creators of all kinds only the chance to be fleetingly “Internet famous.” And anyhow, she says, the web never really threatened to overthrow the old media’s upper echelons, whether defined as superstars, like Beyoncé, big broadcast television shows or Hollywood studios. Instead, it was the cultural industry’s middle ­classes that have been wiped out and replaced by new cultural plantations ruled over by the West Coast aggregators.

If you win the Internet lottery and your video goes viral, and you get an interview on The Today show, then what?

It’s just back to serfdom (with exceptions, like E. L. James, author of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which began as “Twilight” fan fiction). In any event, the odds of going viral are comparable to winning the lottery, but the lottery, to its credit, actually pays out in cash. You might say virality is the promise that keeps the proletariat toiling in the cultural factories, instead of revolting and asking for something better.

Wu says Taylor overlooks hobbyists and amateurs — people posting selfies on Instagram aren’t in it for the money. And Wu also says the Internet permits creation of whole new genres, like Awkward Family Photos (which I’m not so sure is a new thing — a site like Awkward Family Photos reminds me of those little novelty books you could buy at the cash registers of shopping mall bookstores in the 70s and 80s.)

And the Internet is great for consumers — it’s never been easier to get great content from sites like Netflix and Amazon.

Taylor’s solution: “sustainable culture” along with more public support for the arts.

My $0.02: I make a better living on the Internet than I did before. And steamed broccoli is one of our favorite foods.

Content and Its Discontents

Image: NesuKurosu

Leonard Cohen on creative work and meaningful songs

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Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”).

Also:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

I hate the phrase “guilty pleasure,” or assigning certain works of art or food as “highbrow” or “lowbrow.” Love what you love. You want to listen to ABBA in the morning and Tchaikovsky in the evening? They’re both good choices.

Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting

Handwriting helps people retain more information, generate more ideas, research shows

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The physical act of writing things out activates pathways in the brain different from those activated when typing on a keyboard.

I keyboard or thumb-type almost everything. The one exception: When I’m at a conference or doing a face-to-face interview, I write the notes by hand using a stylus on my iPad and the Notability app. Notability doesn’t do handwriting recognition, but it captures images of what I write and saves them as PDFs. However, I had problems with that system at my last conference.

What’s Lost As Handwriting Fades

Nobody walks just to walk anymore

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People walk for fitness and to make an ecological statement — to be green. But few people go on aimless, undistracted walks, which promote creativity and thoughtfulness, says Finlo Roher.

I walk a half-hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon, and about 10-15 minutes before bedtime. Minnie is with me on the morning and nighttime walks, and the afternoon walk too unless it’s too hot for her paws on pavement. In the afternoon I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, but in the morning and night I’m unplugged.

I’m not sure how I fit into Roher’s schema of distracted vs. undistracted walkers. I suspect more on the distracted side.

See: The slow death of purposeless walking

Speaking of walking, time for me to put down the iPad and hit the bricks. This will be Minnie’s first one-hour fast walk since Monday; Tuesday through Saturday were too blamed hot for her. Those long walks are good for our physical, mental, and emotional health — she and I both — and because they tire her out they promote domestic tranquility and sanity in the evening.

Given our lifestyles, Julie and I should not have adopted a moderately-high-energy dog like Minnie. Fortunately, this decision proved to be one of many bad decisions I’m glad to have made.