Tag Archives: economy

The Apostate

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 images-3should 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.

 

DEP

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I began teaching part-time at the Vancouver Film School in the mid-eighties, for what I then thought was fairly decent remuneration.  I still teach at Langara College part-time, for wages that are two dollars less per hour than I was paid in 1986.  In Canada, disposable income has increased by just 10% since 1990; this while inflation totaled about 60% over that time.  In the U.S., one of two recent college graduates was unemployed or underemployed in 2012.  It’s all because of DEP.

DEP is an acronym of my own invention, abbreviating Downward Economic Pressure.  You’re welcome to use it anytime; feel free.  If your daughter, having completed an expensive university degree, seems able to secure little more than a minimum wage service job, you can shrug and simply say, “It’s DEP.”  Those auto workers in Ontario who have recently watched their jobs waft gently over the border to Mexico and the southern States?  They can put it all into proper perspective by just mumbling, “More DEP.”

Economic (and with it political power) is shifting eastward to Asia, and southward, to places like Brazil.  The glory days of North American prosperity are waning.   It’s a trend we’ve all heard of, but it’s hard to appreciate just how significant that trend is, or how lasting its effects may be.  Can anyone say, ‘British Empire,’ once the largest the world has ever known?

The median salary in Mexico is less than 3000 Canadian dollars; in Canada the median wage is about $46,000.  That about explains it, but again it’s difficult to overestimate the long-term implications of this divide, once global capitalism has its way.  And yes, I know that a few American companies have of late moved their manufacturing facilities back to the States, and I’ve heard that some plants in China have recently relocated to Viet Nam, where labour costs are still lower, but in the end the net effect is the same.  We in the West are losing our position of comparative affluence, and it ain’t coming back, not in our lifetimes.

Because this is precisely what ‘globalization’ means—the leveling of economic benefits across the globe, like water syphoned from one bucket to another, the liquid eventually finds its own matching level.  If wages are rising in India, they are falling in Canada.  And so it must be.

Or does it?  Someone like Linda McQuaid, the Canadian writer and social critic, doesn’t think so.  McQuaid, in books like The Myth of Impotence, would suggest that it’s indeed possible for governments to counteract the free-market effects of globalization with tools like the so-called ‘Tobin Tax,’ a levy proposed by Nobel Laureate James Tobin on international currency conversions.  And it may be possible, with some obvious benefits, but it’s not likely to happen, given the political power of those folks involved in international currency conversions.

But then, in contemplating the moral high ground held by someone from the left end of the political spectrum like McQuaid, I’m given to recall a tale told in Granta Magazine, years back, by a former British shipbuilder.  When some sort of technological change came around in the shipbuilding trade, requiring a shift from one union sector to another—from iron to copper pipe or some such territorial advance—it meant that many members from the replaced union sect were contemplating unemployment.  The industry’s solution, under pressure from powerful unions, was to institute an arrangement where the former pipefitter stood over the shoulder of the new pipefitter, ensuring that the job was done correctly.  Both workers would be paid equally.  Needless to say, the British shipbuilding industry slipped quietly away.

British Finance Minister George Osborne, austerity champion and someone who, a recent study indicates, appears more often in British nightmares than any other public figure, goes about these days saying that western nations must “do or decline.”  He may be right about that, and it can all be a little daunting, but, as I say, the trend is not going away, and maybe it shouldn’t.  Morally, can we assert that Western peoples, with their consumer lifestyle and broad social safety net, have any sort of inherent right to the preferred position?  Certainly colonialism put this sort of east-to-west economic flow in place, and perhaps we’re now simply witness to the final, just outcome of colonialism.

Equally perplexing is the question of whether the planet’s environment can sustain the rise of the non-western world to the same accumulative lifestyle that exists in Europe and North America.  All those cars, paid holidays, and insured medical expenses.  Time will tell, and the telling of this tale of macro-economic adjustments will get your attention, you may be sure.  We are all, it seems, subject to the ancient Chinese curse; we are all living in interesting times.