A second post about the old days when everything was great
I posted yesterday, in a trademark rambling fashion, on how digital networks are changing the way we consume culture, and how I felt this to be an occasionally bad thing. Or at least, how I felt we were losing something in the process. There were some responses to that, and I read some other things too, so I thought I’d do another post, but this time it’s more linky.
First of all, Pete Townshend. I hadn’t actually read his John Peel lecture, but he said quite a lot of things which, on the face of it, were pretty similar to what I’d been saying. He certainly seems to say that the cataclysm which has ripped through the recorded music industry – or, more specifically, the record companies – has weakened the industry’s ability to launch new acts. He suggests that networked services, including iTunes, can perform the old record company functions, but I’m really not sure. Neither, it’s worth saying, is David Hepworth, who thinks long and intelligently about these things:
When record stores were the shop window, the companies could hope that your attention might be attracted by something you hadn’t gone in there to get.
All that’s gone now. People download individual tracks, which means even successful acts get a fraction of a fraction of the revenue. Record companies can’t afford to spend money on promoting records. All that matters nowadays is getting into those few inches of space occupied by the home page of the iTunes store.
Another long post I read this morning, which linked to mine but was in no way inspired by it (I’m not that cocky) was by Matt Locke, a former colleague from Channel 4 who is far, far smarter than me when it comes to media theory. Matt was actually responding to Townshend, and says his nostalgia for the past (which I’m not really sure is fair to Townshend – he seems quite positive about the future) is based on a misplaced view of how culture is consumed now:
The ways in which audiences attention can be driven to new culture is infinitely more complex than in the late 20th century, and its only been in the last 5 years or so that we’re starting to see what the new patterns of attention are. Some of them look familiar, with niche content organically (or calculatedly, in the case of shows like The X Factor) getting large amounts of attention. But these patterns are much more unstable that they used to be, and the rewards are nowhere near enough to offset hits and misses.
Alongside the familiar patterns of mainstream attention, there are a huge number of new patterns that could only exist in digital culture. Some of these patterns are very slow, with attention accruing over months or years, as social recommendation or small groups of fans gradually accrue around content. Some are extremely fast, synchronising audiences’ attention around a piece of culture within days, before moving on just as quickly. Some are driven by deliberate plans, orchestrated between broadcast channels and social media. Some emerge via the organic connections of lots of smaller drivers, from blogs and niche channels to SEO and twitter accounts.
Matt calls this kind of consumption Spiky. He says something like punk – a sudden breakthrough of a new cultural experience into the mainstream – will never happen again, but instead “there are a hundred punk moments happening every day.”
The thing is, I think that’s basically what I was saying. Matt doesn’t place a value judgement on that, but I suspect that, knowing him as I do, he is incredibly excited about a world where “a hundred punk moments happen every day.” But my point yesterday was that, indeed, this is happening; but it is, by definition, a more fractured experience. A hundred punk moments may only each be a hundredth as exciting as the One Big Punk Moment which happened in the 1970s.
And yet, and yet: a former colleague said this on Twitter:
Which I really love a great deal. There are more loci of intensity. The great, probably unanswerable, question is whether the intensity is of the same nature as it used to be. Phil (who tweeted that) also pointed out, jokingly, that I am a good deal older than him. I pointed out, joking but with an edge creeping into my voice, that a great many people are older than him.
Finally, my friend Tim Wright asked me if I’d read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which I hadn’t, and he pointed me to the YouTube versions of his famous 1970s television version of that book. In it, Berger essentially says the great cultural artefacts of the past have been fundamentally altered by the development of first photography and then film; that we see them differently now, because our viewing of them is so often mediated by lenses and technology. In other words, technology changes culture. Here’s a clip:
Any more thoughts? Jump in the comments below.