One of the themes of Virginia Postrel’s terrific The Future And Its Enemies is that for many, top-down control of markets can seem awfully reassuring. There are still lots of people who preferred the simplicity of the days when AT&T was synonymous with telephone, because of how simple and universal it made things. But never mind that rates for a long-distance call were much, much more expensive before AT&T was broken up. Similarly, many people long for the days when men wore suits when flying, even though an airlines ticket cost a heckuva lot more before the industry was deregulated to the casual masses.
As Glenn Reynolds writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (and at least for a time, a frequent contributor to Pajamas Media, ironically enough) waxes nostalgic for the days of mass media:
Keen’s thesis is that talent is rare and that worthwhile products – whether we’re talking about news reporting, music composition or filmmaking – can be produced only if that talent is nurtured at great length and filtered to a great extent. Only a long and expensive process of refinement can dispose of the common dross and produce the pure gold of quality work.
This argument would be more impressive if the “quality work” from the big media organizations he describes were, well, golden. Keen references Bach and the Beatles as examples of quality music, but when he complains about the music industry’s current travails he doesn’t note that today’s record industry isn’t giving us Bach and the Beatles – it’s giving us Britney. Likewise, he blames Internet piracy for declining movie attendance when the cause appears to be elsewhere: a recent Zogby poll found that people are going to the movies less often because they think the films stink and, in a more literal way, so do the theaters.
Likewise, Keen decries the decline of the news business, invoking Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, without mentioning that today’s top newscasters include Dan “Forged Documents” Rather, Katie Couric and Geraldo Rivera. A lesser breed, by any standard. Keen even complains about declining radio listenership leading to financial problems for Clear Channel broadcasting – a chain many people regard as having ruined radio in America through its imposition of rigid formatting and too many commercials. What Keen sees as a tragedy, many will see as just desserts.
And that’s the story of Keen’s elites overall. The Golden Age of mass culture didn’t end just because the Internet let people do their own thing. It ended because people looked at the low – and steadily declining – quality of mass-marketed television, radio, news, films, and music and concluded that they could do better. And they are often right, not necessarily because the amateur productions are so terrific (though sometimes they are), but because the big media productions are so often dreadful.
Like U.S. car companies in the 1970s, the television networks, movie and record studios, newspapers, and radio stations grew comfortable in their protected positions, and forgot how (or just didn’t bother) to make good products. Now their market shares are declining, as people find substitutes. And while people in the 1970s had to look to Japan or Germany for substitute cars, they have only to look to the Internet for substitute sources of news and entertainment – sources that are often, Keen’s assertions notwithstanding, just as good as their traditional versions. (Amateur embedded bloggers such as Michael Yon, Michael Totten, Bill Roggio or Bill Ardolino, for example, are producing some of the very best reporting from Iraq, supported by ads on their blogs and donations from their readers, not by big media organizations.)
Remember when films like Rollerball and Network hyped the dangers of a world controlled by a handful of big corporations? That’s exactly the mid-20th century mass media model that Keen prefers.
Sturgeon’s Law is an absolute in the sense that if, as Theodore Sturgeon quipped, “Ninety percent of everything is crud”, then today’s explosion of information and entertainment on the ‘Net produces an exponentially greater amount of crud then the mid-20th century, when there were only three television networks, a handful of movie and TV studios and record labels, and only one or two newspapers per big city. So it is that much more difficult to mine the gold from the dross. But I’d rather have many more news and entertainment choices to pick from then less, (plus the option of creating in these genres myself) particularly when today’s legacy medias, despite more competition than ever before, continue to underperform.