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.
Scott Rosenberg discusses Jefferson Pooley’s essay about the American idea of self.
Pooley traces the history of personal authenticity through the lens of a mid-20th-century American intellectual tradition — thinkers such as David Riesman and Christopher Lasch. He outlines “the contradiction that is at the core of the modern American self,” which “could be summed up as: Be true to yourself; it is to your strategic advantage.” Our culture, Pooley writes, summons us to “embark on quests of self-discovery that promise to affirm our uniqueness”; then the “self-improvement industries and especially advertising” hitch along for the ride, or hijack the quest for their own ends. The same culture also commands us to “stage-manage the impressions we give off to others as the essential toolkit for success” — to cultivate our personal “brands.”
Choosing to be as Pooley puts it, “instrumental about authenticity” — being yourself because, man, it sells — creates a paradox. It’s like the paradox of the businessperson who learns to meditate on the futility of striving because it helps him close deals. You can make this kind of thing work for a while, but sooner or later it will catch up with you.
The way around the problem is to be in the moment. Be who you are at that time. Paraphrasing a science fiction writer (Roger Zelazny): Closing the sale today doesn’t matter in geological time, but because you are not a rock or a glacier, why should you care about geological time. In 100 years we’ll all be dead, but it’s not 100 years from now, it’s today. And next week won’t be 100 years from now either. It’ll just be next week.