Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Gutenberg 2.0, and the Death of the object

Today I want to take a short break from our usual fare and begin a short series on the state of professional media in the age of Web 2.0. So let's jump in.

What is Web 2.0? As Andrew Keen has pointed out, the term itself is not so much an intentional nomenclature that indicates a new set of inventions or practices, but was rather a term developed by media observers to describe a sort of historical moment characterized by the post 2000 NASDAQ crash and the explosion of what we now call "social media," i.e Facebook, Youtube, Digg etc. In general, the idea of Web 2.0centers around the idea of user-generated content, and the potential to liberate media from the "Gatekeepers" of traditional mainstream media.

The above description is loaded with points of interest and potential contention. However, I don't want to engage all of those issues at the outset. I would like to begin (as may be appropriate in Web 2.0) with a personal story.

The two industries seemingly most affected by the rise of digital technology and the information economy are the music industry and journalism. When I was in high school, the Internet was still very, very nascent in its development. I used to mail order vinyl records from a small punk rock outfit in Goleta, California. When the sides arrived from Ebullition records, there were always goodies; sometimes free zines, band stickers, mail order catalogs from other indie labels. Pulling those packages out of the mail and locking myself in my room was a gleeful ritual. I would put the records on, hold the covers in my hands, look at the lyrics and artwork inserts, and while away the hours in angst ridden bliss (I did mention these were punk rock records, right?). Now, before you accuse me of romanticizing the "physical object," keep in mind that from a young age I was a collector. For awhile it was hockey and baseball cards, then comic books, and eventually music. Perhaps there is a pathology associated with "collecting," but for me and my friends, the association with these small, mail order record labels, the bands that they promoted and the scene in which everyone was involved constituted a community. Furthermore, these objects played the role of our communal artifacts.

To be sure, digital technology has killed the physical artifact. Some may point to isolated situations in which a hardcore minority insist on purchasing CD's or vinyl, but in 2010, these are the real New Romantics. I myself have succumbed and surrendered to iTunes, because I want my music with me everywhere I go. And I doubt anyone in the moribund music industry will tell you that there is hope on the horizon. Web 2.0 has destroyed the old business model of the recording industry, that is beyond debate. The question which remains, is whether or not this is a good thing.

It's a complicated question and cannot be answered in a short blog entry, so my goal here is to present a series of interlocking themes to widen the discussion. On the one hand, there are those who argue that with the dinosaur record industry out of the way, the artist can be in complete control of all aspects of the creation and marketing of their music, and can do so at relatively low cost. This is the "democratization" of media that the champions of Web 2.0 espouse as their central ideology. This raises for me two central questions. First, has this leveling of the technological playing field made it any easier for musicians to make a living from their music? Certainly, they have more control, and are not beholden to the infamous "exploitation" of the labels, but they now must operate in an ever widening field of competition, and since digital music can just as often be pirated rather than purchased, does this reduce the resources available for bands to harness their craft and raise their level of ability against an increase of competitors in the field? The second question is related to this, and involves the role that the labels played as "Gatekeepers." Part of the investment in the production of the physical object was an investment in bands that were deemed to have sufficient talent, which was then harnessed and polished by A&R people, professional marketers and the taste makers at the labels. These are all very naughty concepts in Web 2.0, yet is something lost when no one is willing to invest in individuals whose sole purpose is to separate the wheat from the chaff? The flattened media proponents will say that "the people" will decide. In other words, the logic of the free market must operate unhindered by the "regulation" of old media authority.

I don't want to propose a final verdict on any of these questions as much as I want to begin the discussion. Suffice it to say that it seems to me that we are at a point where it cannot be regarded as a zero-sum game, and there will be a place for both taste makers and authority, as well as direct democratic content generation. The issue of authority and the gatekeepers will be extended in the next post, as I think this is a particularly vital issue in the discussion about the future of journalism.

Stay tuned, and leave comments!

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