Jaron Lanier is an interesting case. He’s an author, musician, composer and computer scientist who, back in the 80s, was a pioneer in virtual reality soft and hardware. (The company he founded after leaving Atari in 1985 was the first to sell VR goggles and gloves.)
Most interestingly, these days Lanier is a sharp critic of what he terms, “digital Maosim,” the open source groupthink which says that not only all information, but all creative content should be free and subject to appropriation (for mashups, for instance). As you might expect, he’s been subject to considerable blowback from the online community in taking this position, and Lanier freely admits that he was once a card-carrying member of this same club, believing that any musicians or journalists who were going broke because of the digital revolution were simply dinosaurs, unable to adapt to a new environment that would soon provide them other means of financial support, if only they were a little patient and properly innovative. The problem is, as Lanier writes in his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, “None of us was ever able to give the dinosaurs any constructive advice about how to survive.”
And so, currently, we have a world where creators—be they artists, musicians, writers or filmmakers—face massive competition and constant downward pressure on what they can charge for their product. This while a few of what Lanier labels the “Lords of the Clouds”—those very able but still very lucky entrepreneurs who were at the right place at the right time with the right idea (think the owners of Youtube and Google)—have amassed huge fortunes.
These conditions have delivered a new feudal world where, according to Lanier, we again have starving peasants and rich lords, where formerly middle-class creators struggle to survive in the face of competition from what he adroitly describes as those people ‘living in their van,’ or those who are mere hobbyists, creating art as an after-work pastime, or perhaps because they can pay their monthly bills with an inheritance. Important artists find themselves, like Renaissance artists of old, looking to rely on the beneficence of wealthy patrons. “Patrons gave us Bach and Michelangelo,” rues Lanier, “but it’s unlikely patrons would have given us Vladimir Nabokov, the Beatles, or Stanley Kubrick.”
There’s little doubt that the digital revolution has been fairly disastrous for the creative community, at least once you combine it with the global economic tanking that took place in 2008-09. (See last week’s post: ‘DEP.’) As is so often the case, however, the picture is not so simple. Another huge factor in the plethora of creative product out there at rock bottom prices is the advent of new production technology. It’s now a whole lot easier than it was back in the 1970s to make a movie, or record some music, or publish your book. The means of production have evolved to where just about anyone can get their hands on those means and begin creating, then distributing. More supply, less [or the same] demand means lower prices; the invisible, emotionally indiscriminate hand of capitalism at work. The former gatekeepers—the major record labels, publishing houses and movie studios—have lost their decisive positions at the entryway, and this in the end has to be a good thing. It’s just that the change has not come without a flip side, one Lanier does a nice job of illuminating.
Back in 1990, Francis Coppola was interviewed by his wife for the making of Heart of Darkness; A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary she was shooting about the extraordinary travails Coppola had faced in completing his career-defining opus Apocalypse Now. Coppola had this to say about the future of filmmaking: “My great hope is that … one day some little fat girl in Ohio is gonna be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s camera, and for once the so-called ‘professionalism’ about movies will be destroyed forever, and it will become an art form.”
Be careful what you wish for.