Death of local scenes

by Rob Horning

19 December 2005


This paper by economist David Zetland explores the “negative externalities” of Google (which is econospeak for the bad things about Google that do nothing to prevent its becoming more and more popular). He points to two in particular: First, the loss of opporutnities to innovate, since Google delivers so much information ready-made. There is no need to think through something to reach your own conclusions; Google skiips you over to the many possible conclusions that have already been produced along the same lines. It prempts deductive thinking, encourages assocative grouping via searches based on a few pithily chosen phrases. Jst recombine the key terms of what you are thinking about, and see what’s out there, rather than undergo the hard work of connecting those terms by the strictures and rigor of your own personal logic. There is a real sense that there are no new ideas that anyone could come up with, and the best thing to do is to continue to link to other things already out there (much as I and millions of other bloggers do—linking to each other or scanning stuff in). There is no sense in trying to add value, all the value is already in the Internet, and we can only ladle out a tasty scoop—that is the most we can take credit for. Obviously this attitude is bad for innovation and the future of thought. But it’s great for cataloging cool stuff like old paperback novel covers and photos of sexy 60s actresses and so on. There’s a Flickr photo set already out there for anything that has ever been thought to be cool; you just have to hope it’s not a private one. Still, this fact would seem to discourage one from creating their own Flickr set of cool scans, but that may underestimate the degree to which one’s narcissistic sense of individuality and egoistic need to express it trumps the Internet’s irrefutable proof that one is never original. (I’m sorry; I’m wafflng back and forth a bit.) Writes Zetland:“Google (and other Internet sources) have not affected our generation of new knowledge very much now, since there are still old things being uploaded, not everyone is connected, and the meshing of cultures (`a la Cowen) is still occurring, but the next stage can include a decrease in overall generation of new material (as old material is downloaded as sufficient) as well as the appropriate reduction in capacity that would follow.” At some point, people will accept that everything worth uploading is there already, and things will dry up (theoretically, anyway). And then where will I get my fix of downloadable thrift-store albums?

Second, Zetland points out the loss of local communities of shared knowledge, i.e. the knowledge equivalent of destruction of local music scenes, which feed on their cloistered ignorance of what is happening in the rest of the world. Google gives immediate access to what the world has to offer on every subject imaginable, so ideas need no longer incubate separately in isolated communities, and those communities need no longer form. Even when local communities try to use what they know particularly to bar outsiders, Google militates against that, allowing anyone to snoop in and immediately disseminate local secrets. It even seems to be trying to organize local knowledge and make it immediately available via its annotated maps. Zetland thinks this could help preserve local culture, but it seems to be it reifies it into prepackaged boxes imported from the outside. And things like craigslist are certainly useful to community, but it supplants the functions of physical community space where who knows what might have happened had people been forced to rub shoulders with each other. (See my paean to public transport above.)

Zetland sees in the future “the one-size-fits-all ideal that management consultants, international aid organizations, fast-food franchises and other purveyors of commodities in the global marketplace often implement—with poor results” taking over everything—homogenous solutions available in a package through the Internet will obviate the local development of solutions to local problems, and the idea that there are even local problems, unique to a particular place, may gradually disappear. This has already happened in the sphere of music: Since we can all hear the best performances now, “As a result, I claim, amateur or idiosyncratic voices can have a harder time being heard because their audience has defected, reducing demand. Supply fails when local creators (of music, ideas, etc.) build an expectation that their contributions will be superseded by superior outside sources and do not even bother to try. The spring of their inspiration can dry up, as the ethos defining their culture falls into disuse.” There, in a nutshell, is why local music scenes have died. Local musicians may conclude that they must either try to succeed on a national scale or accept utter anonymity and be a drop in the vast ocean of Internet-distributed music.


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