Is the Web Destroying the Cultural Economy?

February 21, 2015

Are we entering a cultural Dark Age, where the talented cannot earn a living creating culture?

Longtime correspondent G.F.B. recently sent me this 13-minute Interview with Andrew Keen. This is my first exposure to Keen, and his view that the democratization of the Web is great for politics but a disaster for what he calls the Cultural Economy-- the relatively small but important slice of the economy that pays creators and artists to make culture: music, literature, art and serious journalism.

The title of Keen's 2007 book encapsulates his dire perspective: The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.

(His 2012 book had a similar theme: Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us)

(Author Scott Timberg makes some of the same points in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (via Cheryl A.)

Keen touches on a great many ideas and themes in this brief interview, but his core point is this: by enabling everyone to express themselves on an essentially equal footing, the Web has undermined legitimate journalism and buried the talented few in an avalanche of mediocrity--in his words, talent is "lost in a sea of garbage."

By eliminating the middleman who added value by sorting the wheat from the chaff--the film studio, the music labels, the publishers--the Web has created a cultural landscape where "soft, ordinary" content such as cute cat videos garner the most "likes" and clicks--the digital world's metric for popularity and thus value in the marketplace.

Keen tossed off one of his most interesting ideas as an aside: that the break-up of community and the resulting loss of identity has generated a universal drive to establish an identity via self-expression: everybody feels they can compose a song, write a novel or make a movie.

Keen is at his most provocative (to the democratized ideal of the amateur making it big) when he declares the vast majority of people are talentless: talent is by definition scarce. We can't all be equally talented, nor can anyone generate culturally valuable content without mastering their craft over thousands of hours of practice.

Keen unapologetically calls the previous arrangement an "industrial meritocracy." He feels this hierarchical meritocracy is being destroyed and there is nothing to replace it.  This will result in a cultural Dark Age where the talented cannot earn a living creating culture. The only avenue left for creators of content that can be copied and distributed digitally (music, digital art, writing) is to find wealthy patrons to support their work.

One of G.F.B.'s points in our conversation was the Web's "level playing field" is an artificial construct, much like the playing field in a stadium. But outside the stadium, the topography is anything but level.  Put other way, global corporations have great advantages in the supposedly "level playing field" of the Web.

Keen mentions that what will remain scarce in this tsunami of digital content is access to the artist, live performances and art that cannot be digitized, such as sculpture and paintings. As I have discussed in previous Musings, musicians who perform constantly can make a living in this environment, because their free music on the web builds an audience for their live performances.  But not every band performs enough to make a go of this model.

In Keen's  view, it is now essentially impossible for bands, artists and writers to create a "brand" that will generate an income. Only those creators who entered the digital age with an established brand can leverage their recognition into an income.

As a completely marginal creator of content who never rose within the industrial meritocracy lauded by Keen, I  think Keen makes some excellent points but overstates his case for a cultural Dark Age.

As G.F.B. pointed out in our conversation on this topic, a new class of curators is arising within the Web, people who sift through the vast outpouring of content and select the best or most interesting (in their view). Those curators who succeed are adding value just as the industrial middlemen did in the pre-digital model. In some small way, I think Of Two Minds performs a bit of this curation.

It seems to me that the digital age requires every creator of content to not only be perseverant but to focus a great deal of time and energy on marketing their content--precisely what the industrial media and cultural industrial-model companies once did for their talent.

There is no longer enough money in creating content to pay an office full of people to issue press releases and arrange book tours.  In the publishing world, promotion is increasingly up to the authors; as Keen noted, only those authors with brands that were established in the pre-digital age can sell enough content to support industrial-type promotion.

We can bemoan this, or we can grasp the nettle and realize that  it is no longer enough to practice one's craft for the fabled 10,000 hours--one must also invest another 10,000 hours in promoting and marketing one's content/cultural creations.  That dual process (creation and marketing) is so arduous, so impoverishing, so demanding, only the driven few can sustain it long enough to claw their way through the mountains of mediocrity.  

Making a living at cultural content was always brutally Darwinian; perhaps all that's changed is the nature of the Darwinian selection process.

This essay was drawn from Musings Report 51 (2014). The weekly Reports are sent exclusively to subscribers and major contributors ($50 or more annually).

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