Every year the New York Times movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis write a series of memos directed to the media barons whose financial choices affect the creative output the two critics review for a living. Buried among longer memos about hiring more female directors and making fewer super hero sequels was this pithy memo from Scott.
To: The Internet
Cc: Everyone who writes about “the Internet”
Subject: Stop confusing quantity with quality. Stop hyping the revolutionary potential of “data,” “innovation” and other empty abstractions. Stop trying to fix things that weren’t broken and breaking things that you can’t fix. Just stop.
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For someone like myself, running the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, the recognition of the basic truth of Scott’s critique is painful. But technologists need to confront the reality that putting the value of “disruption” above all others, they are currently destroying the artistic soul of modern culture with no real plan on how to rebuild what they have broken.
Consider the music business. Revenues to artists worldwide have fallen by over 50% since Napster was introduced in 2000. Even though it is now possible to access any song on any device anywhere in the world, as I wrote last week,
Spotify had gross revenues of over $600 million last year, but an artist would have to have more than 4 million plays per month to make the minimum wage of $1,160 per month.
The response of the tech community to this crisis is to suggest to musicians that they “get a real job”, by which I assume they mean writing code for some me too social sharing app that further destroys the music business.
As broadband speeds increase around the world this creative destruction tsunami is about to wreak havoc on the film and TV business. There are already far too many TV channels pouring out a torrent of junky reality shows and now we have Yahoo, AOL, You Tube, Amazon, Netflix, Crackle and probably hundreds of other OTT players throwing more crap against the virtual wall to see what sticks. As Scott says, “stop confusing quantity with quality.” In the course of human history, a limited number of people in any given generation could be considered real artists. Walk through the Prado and count the number of Spanish artists working in 1620 that stood the test of time. Valazquez, El Greco and maybe a couple of others. That’s it. You can count the number of great Rhythm and Blues artists of the 1940’s and 1950’s on two hands. By the Infinite Monkey Theory, that their typing would eventually yield Shakespeare, one would imagine that the 100 hours of video uploaded to You Tube per hour (876,000 hours per year!) over the last 9 years would have yielded us a Kubrick, Scorsese or Welles. If it has, no one has brought that filmmaker to my attention.
Now I know that no one in Silicon Valley is going to yield to Scott’s injunction to “just stop”, but I do think it is incumbent on Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and the other Tech billionaires to consider how they are destroying the artistic patrimony of our country. Last weekend I got a freebie to see Avicii, the Swedish DJ who makes more money off the live music business than almost any musician living, by remixing the work of other artists and knowing how to bring a room full of buzzed kids to a fever pitch through the largest bass speakers in the world. Was it art? Will we care about it in 20 years? Will anyone even know it existed in 200 years? The answer to all of the above is no.
But I believe that in 200 years some young guitar player will still be listening to Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording of “Crossroad Blues” and marveling at the raw power of both his voice and his guitar playing in the same way that a 15 year old Eric Clapton was moved to take up the blues life. We are currently in a state of cultural amnesia because the trivial firehose of the now that pours out of our smartphones leaves neither time nor guidance to consider the cultural banquet our forefathers have created. When was the last time you looked at one of Chaplin’s silent films or even Casablanca or Singin’ in the Rain? Writing about Gabriel Garcia Marquez a few weeks ago, I quoted this line, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.”
It may be that in twenty years, if the folks at Oxford are right, and fifty percent of the current jobs have been computerized, everyone will have the time to be an artist because there won’t be any other meaningful employment for anyone but bankers and teachers (Irony alert). I assume by then there will have to be some sort of guaranteed income to keep folks from attacking the gated communities of the 1%. But I still doubt that anymore than a few folks in any generation will pass the historical “who cares” test. I can hear now the accusations of elitism. Who am I to say what is good and what is bad? You don’t have to take my word for it, because time always sorts the great from the merely popular. Remember Milli Vanilli?