[17 January 2008]
I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch, which argues that computing power has become a centralized utility, like electricity, and the consequences of this will be nothing like what such utopians as Kevin Kelly, et al., have predicted. It won’t be a force for unleashing innovation and personal freedom; instead it will enact a more thorough state surveillance capability and be a powerful disincentive for creating intellectual property, leaving our culture awash in dilettante-produced mediocrity. Rather than pay an elite group of talented content-creators, companies can instead draw from the pool of free, user-generated content, a boon of unpaid labor, and monetize it in a way the individual workers can’t. (Management consultant types call this crowdsourcing. In a blog post, Carr called it digital sharecropping.)
Carr acknowledges that people have good reasons for donating their labor—namely, they are paid in recognition and the work is usually a creative outlet. But you still get the sense that it annoys him that amateurs are able to amuse and inform one another, that they are taking bread out of the mouths of anointed media professionals. Carr quotes a photojournalist who says that “the internet ‘economy’ has devastated my sector.” And presumably we are supposed to feel sorry for him, though what this means is that more people are sharing more images documenting more of the world’s activity for people to make use of as they see fit than ever before. Photojournalism is no longer strictly a matter of having the privileged connections to get work publicized and have one’s talent sanctified. If photojournalists feel threatened, its because they are being made aware how much of their distinction is a matter of access to travel and equipment and high-profile places to publish their work. If their work was so far superior to the work of amateurs, wouldn’t publishers and collectors be willing to pay for it, since everyone would see the difference and it would be something that could be marketed? The difference in talent may not equal the savings, and may never again. That seems to be what Carr is arguing, and lamenting: “Many cultural goods remain expensive to create or the painstaking work of talented professionals and it’s worth considering how the changing economics of media will affect them.” Hmm. I’ve considered it, and I’m inclined to say good riddance.
Being an obscure nobody, I’m strongly tempted (it probably already shows in my tone) to revel in schadenfreude and gloat about the misery of established artists or creative workers. How one feels about the fate of the poor photojournalist may be a litmus test for what one believes overall about talent. I’ve tended to think talent is far more subjective and ineffective that it’s generally held to be—that is, that it has no measurable value in mometary terms, but can only be assigned an approximate dollar value residually after other explanations for art market variances are accounted for—and that determination and connections are more important to success. And maybe, since these are somewhat destructive attributes to have, despoiling most personal relationships and making everyday life somewhat of a prod and a torment, they deserve to be amply compensated; those who are cursed with them are driven to produce the stuff we in our leisure can happily consume, while we enjoy things like family life and interpersonal relationships. We may need an airtight system of intellectual property rights to entice these miserably ambitious people to make commercial art, but that art, cherish it now though we may, is not the best or only art there is. It just happens to be what our economic system privileged and yielded and lauded, with a whole adjuct commercial system of reviewers and appraisers and collectors with a vested interest in it. If such work is “crowded out of the Web’s teeming bazaar” that may not be such a crushing loss. It may simply mean we need to recalibrate our aesthetic understanding of what we dub to be brilliant art to be something other than that which is created by an individual and possessed by a wealthy collector. We may have to accept art that is made collectively, distributed for free, and is never quite in a finished form. We may have to understand creative work as a process rather than a product. Horrible, I know.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/crowdsourcing/