Friday, July 20, 2012

Democracy or Monopoly Capitalism?

There has been a spate of articles about Hipstamatic and Instagram technology and the democratization and its putative ruin of photography, as in this piece by Mathew Ingram on Gigaom, entitled "What the Instagram Backlash Says About the Future of Media."  But little has yet been published about the underlying economic aspects of digital technology.

Techno-aesthetic changes have nothing to do with "ruining" photography, and the so called "democratization" of the medium, insofar as it entails more people taking pictures, is not a threat to anyone who wishes to devote him or herself to a serious exploration of the medium. 

Look at this from a different perspective.  Writing is a technology that has been available for centuries (though not always) to anyone who can afford a pen and paper (or nowadays a cheap computer), but the democratic evolution of the Word did not result in the ruin of the language or deterioration of its various artistic forms.  (The democratization of the Word, however, did have enormous cultural consequences, as for example in the translation of Scripture from Latin into common speech.)  Anyone can write, but not everyone can be a "writer" and that category is not merely a matter of "professional" status.  There are "amateurs" (in the strict sense – Montaigne was an amateur, for example) who also qualify as writers.  There is a huge difference between, say, scribblers and writers, and it does not lie merely in aesthetic superiority or the fact that one earns one's livelihood by writing.  The creation of a literary tradition in which certain works disappear and others endure or speak to contemporary as well as past cultures, is a complex matter which involves, in part, a recognition of certain values that provide not just profound thought but also profound pleasure in accordance with tropes and techniques that have abided from the very beginning.  There is no new thing under the sun.

The argument over the direction that Photography is taking (and the other arts) is being formulated in misleading ways.  The real issue is that which is mentioned at the end of the article: “the ‘democratization of distribution’ . . .  not to mention the explosion of self-publishing that Amazon’s Kindle has helped to create” -- in other words, it is the economy or marketing structure that is developing around the production and distribution of content that poses the real problems (and opportunities).  

Amazon is the perfect example.  It is part and parcel of what Jaron Lanier has called "aggregation."  Sure, Amazon "democratizes" distribution in the sense that anyone can publish their content via their distribution machinery and charge readers an unremunerative price for their labors.  But this is not really democratization, which in order to merit the term would have to include not only equal distribution of content, but also equal and fair distribution of the proceeds from that trade, and control of the system by all those involved.  Amazon is a monopoly that threatens to control the monetary value of all cultural production (and artificially depress prices), the means whereby these materials are distributed, the types of content that will be distributed  (yes, ironically the system will not be as open as we all suppose), their formats, and the devices by which they can be viewed. 

There are subtle consequences of this control that many people are not yet aware of.  For example, the current system of publication, despite its flaws, does protect and enable the cultural production of books like Blood Meridian or Mason and Dixon or Dispatches or a thousand other books that are unlikely to survive Amazon’s scheme because they are unpopular, unorthodox, unflattering or intellectually demanding. You see, the current system subsidizes the cultural production of unpopular works through the profits generated by the sale of popular genres such as self help books, and thus it helps authors to make a living and devote themselves full time to their work.  This is also true of the news business.  Newspapers generated enormous profits and subsidized investigative journalism and foreign correspondence not through the sale of the news but through the sale of all types of other information (want ads, crossword puzzles, comics, etc).  This in turn guaranteed mass distribution on an unprecedented scale and allowed for countless important stories to have a huge impact while allowing the reporters to live and work fully as reporters.

The system that is now taking its place is largely modeled on patronage, whether it be the patronage of foundations to fund independent work, or the patronage of consumers, who buy an app or a subscription fee to a website or an ebook.  I have quoted Susan Meiselas a couple times on this point; she argues that we need to find ways to get consumers to contribute toward the work we do by defining their interests (and presumably satisfying them).  But this system depends on the good will and tastes of the consumer, which is not a very good way to conduct business when it comes to marketing types of information that depend to a significant extent on bearing bad news and telling people what they don’t want to hear.  In a market society all culture can be commodified, but not all cultural commodities command a fair price or can survive on the basis of mere demand.  (This is true of traditional commodities as well. The production of corn, which is the basis of the Big Food industry, is heavily subsidized.)  If you think you can command a fair share of the market for your photos or your writings on the basis of your appeal to consumers, think again. But that is the entire MO behind the publishing scheme of Amazon.

I tried to explain some of this in the piece I wrote about the “Hipstamatic Journalist,” which was NOT about the aesthetics of phoneography but the commodification of that aesthetic. I think that essay was largely misunderstood as an attack on the use of iPhones. If you look at digital technology from the perspective of individual creative freedom and editorial control, it certainly looks like a good deal; but if you look at it in terms of the collective effects, and the market forces that are shaping up to profit from it, then the bargain is at best Faustian. On the one hand, you have greater independence, but on the other there is increasing fragmentation of information sources which bewilders the consumers instead of enlightening them, and forces the independent producer more and more into an information ghetto that is deprived of cultural heft.  You achieve minority status and at the same time you relinquish your bargaining power.  You’ve got no money and no credibility.

If you really want to explore these issues in a deeper way, since Ingram's article is cursory at best, I recommend Ken Auletta’s article in the New Yorker, "The Annals of Communication: Paper Trail" ( 25 June 2012), which, while it deals solely with Amazon’s effects on publishing, bears lessons for all of us who provide “content.”

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