The internet is not destroying all creativity
We never read redux
I wrote here more than a year ago about my belief that a certain subset of online readers simply skims articles in online public forums. They search for the glowing ember-phrase that given the right amount of oxygen will create a commenting conflagration. And boom! Topic be damned! That action must fill the perpetrator with a sense of self-satisfaction, I’m sure. If it doesn’t I’d be surprised. If one doesn’t get a thrill from dropping a comment-bomb why do it?
The unfortunate results of the unfiltered, unmediated comment thread is that thoughtful comments get overlooked in the white-heat stream of invective.
I responded to a set of questions about one week ago that became the basis of a Q&A article for Salon. The Q&A was in response to a prior Q&A that was titled ‘Silicon Valley must be stopped, or creativity will be destroyed.’ The title alone would stop any reasonable person in their tracks. Unfortunately, in the article the subject of the interview misrepresented me. There were also some thinly veiled accusations about my being on the board of the non-profit organization Cash Music.
This happens a lot. Yet, as my friend Maurice Boucher reminded me, W.C. Fields famously said: “I don’t have to attend every argument I’m invited to.” Wise man. I certainly don’t attend every argument that I’m invited to either. Sometimes it’s just unavoidable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about specialists, processes and systems lately and have become fascinated with how each of those things affect how we go about our work in an era of online, open platforms. I read recently how Buckminster Fuller worried about overspecialization. This in turn sparked a thought for me about how musical groups are systemic and specialized. In an internet era, that could be debilitating for those musicians who have a false nostalgia for how things used to be.
I’ll save my thoughts on that for another post.
What follows here is my attempt to take the discussion to a higher level. If we start with the premise that the internet is not destroying all creativity, as is clearly evident to anyone who cares to take a look online, we might then be able to untangle the heated rhetoric around the subject of “internet vs creatives.” My position also requires musicians to stop presuming that they are a special subset of internet users that are treated “unfairly.” If everyone is honest we can have a debate.
I will be moderating the comments section of this post. The only rules are: no Ad Hominem attacks and no off-topic comments. Your comments will be deleted if those two simple rules are not followed.
I mentioned Maurice Boucher above. He left the following comment (below) in the comments section of my Salon Q&A. As is often the case when a well-reasoned and thoughtful comment appears in the stream, especially one that requires a response, it is routinely ignored. Maurice’s comment met that fate. I know him well enough through our online correspondence that he would not take this personally. Far from it. He fully understands what happens in these forums.
Here is Maurice’s Salon comment:
In his response to this article David Lowery claims that Dave Allen is setting him up as an anti-Internet straw man. If his position is more precisely a repudiation of HOW the Internet is being used by immoral (or at least amoral) moneyed interests as he seems to claim then I think I can help him pinpoint the exact reason why he is pursuing a not-all-together-hopeless but definitely arcane and peculiar cause.
Because, as Dave Allen rightly points out, of the standards Mr. Lowery proposes as a remedy–fair trade coffee being a rather spurious analogy since it drags ‘art’ down to the level of a commodity (and I love coffee as much as anybody). These bandied about solutions whether enacted without coercion by men of noble virtue or by means of legislative force, has never existed in the history of the world. This is a fact that does not redeem such behavior but it does at the very least gives us ample cause to wonder, “Why this particular situation (and with it the somewhat fuzzy remedies of the “Trichordist” ) and why this moment in history?”
Taking this stand now over the issue of exploitation of musicians while specifically avoiding how in the larger scale of the history of human dealings this inequity is so pervasive and documented; replete even in the history of literature, philosophy, and even science if you care to loosely reference game theory, yet it is suddenly so objectionable at this particular point in history for this specific sub-class, is to fit the definition of what Karl Popper termed in his Poverty of Historicism the definition of ‘essentialist’ thinking. It is a thought process used when political extremists want to separate out a defined group for behavior we have all been known to indulge in, yet wish to attribute exclusively to this group or a sub culture in order to say this is the exception that will not stand. I say why not let it stand if it has always stood before?
Perhaps there is a hidden equity within the chaos. Could the “Trichordist” exception be that for the first time ever Mr. Lowery sees himself on the wrong side of this equation? I hate to think that it is really down to that alone.
Even if there is a larger moral argument here that I have missed it does no good to allude to modernity as a raison d’etre in seeking recompense for musicians over streaming. That traditional modernist argument to address inequity is well established within the confines of the concept of the greater common good, and we don’t need to consult the ghost of John Locke to see how the music listener sees himself in this case. In this POST-modern age it would be more useful to take a relativist position of adjusting to the perceived shift in the ratios of power one group suddenly enjoys over another when technology accelerates access and distribution as it always does. I simply don’t see to which official authority you can address these grievances to when the only authority that has ever mattered is the music fan.
Unlike Dave Allen, whom I support in this matter, I have a less nuanced view of the Internet as an example of a transformative technology and am not willing to engage in rapprochement and with it, the danger of being called an apologist. From my perspective the Internet is NOT a more or less technologically benign presence in the world with nearly no innate deterministic properties. Someone is definitely going to be on the losing end, but I certainly don’t believe in the clarion call of the “Trichordist” that the Internet can or should be put in the hands of practitioners of higher moral virtue even if such people could even be discovered by some heretofore unknown altruistic method or even by the collective wisdom of democratic institutions. In fact, the Internet seems to challenge the foundations of democratic institutions by the ubiquity of its reach into the definitions and roles of the individual in enacting large-scale change out of proportion to that individuals’ comparative social/cultural influence (see Snowden).
The Internet is (quite rightly as Dave Allen pointed out) above sub-culture. It may even be above culture if you hold the view (as I do) that it is a medium and therefore a sealed, transparent and non-permeable (in terms of tracing reason and action) environment that introduces McLuhanist sensory biases thereby forever altering human perception in subtle and subjective ways.
In this light it seems that chasing down specific behaviors that are deemed unproductive by a specific group, one that calls for the curtailment of certain activities by other groups, is to definitely go “down an endless rat hole,” as Dave Allen points out. Why is this so? Because in a medium, human sensory biases need to have free reign or it ceases to be a medium. Its ‘seams’ begin to appear and it becomes an Internet in name only. Some may think that is desirable but it is, in the end, something that no one will stand for. It would be comparable to a worldwide initiative to burn all bibles not written in Latin.
The only method I know of to adjust a medium without destroying it is to build tools to use within its domain that enhance its features to the point that there is equity in opportunity. Right now there seems to be little to no equity in the role of content publishing. Digital technology destroyed the bottleneck through which publishing for profit was able to exploit its inherent limitations. A remedy is coming but it is not an obvious remedy and may only be seen as such in hindsight. It is probably not a remedy that restores a bottleneck. Indeed it will likely be a remedy that expands upon the sensory possibilities that the medium embraces. In this way opportunities for artists will reveal themselves through new and previously unknown bottlenecks. It is this narrative of new frontiers, aside from the narrative of artist exploitation that the Trichordists claim to be newly untenable, that is perennial to human history regardless of the medium in use.
Along with Maurice I have also struck up an online friendship with Anthony Rue. He attempted to post his comment to the Salon comments section but was faced with such an array of hurdles he gave up and instead forwarded his comment to me.
Here it is:
Cry havoc and let slip… the concern trolls. Let’s remember that the current back-and-forth on Salon was engineered by Mr. Timberg, an author releasing a book with the Buzzfeed-worthy click bait title “Creative Destruction: How the 21st Century is Killing the Creative Class, and Why it Matters.” Yet in spite of dire predictions that drive SEO headlines, creativity and the artistic impulse have always proven resilient. The combined 20th century disasters of atrocities and gulags and pogroms and tyrants and mass economic chaos failed to extinguish human creativity– yet we are to believe that a cabal of San Jose VCs pose the true threat? Is it specifically a threat to American artists of a certain appeal (i.e., Grammy fodder circa 1992), or should we expand this perceived threat to the creativity of artists outside of the US mainstream, to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East? Is creativity always commoditized as entertainment? If not, perhaps Timberg and Lowery might consider the creativity of Tahrir Square activists in leveraging web and mobile technologies to improvise a revolution, or, on an individual level, Ai Weiwei’s use of Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and the web to chip away at tangible repression at the hands of the state.
If Mr. Timberg and Mr. Lowery are really concerned about the next Eric Dolphy or Coltrane, they should contact their congressional representatives to demand renewed funding for public arts programs. Even with the recording industry at its monstrous pre-web peak, where was the next Strayhorn? If your name wasn’t Marsalis, you were not making a significant living on jazz record sales in the 80s and 90s. The game was always about entertainment, not creativity.
Working artists and musicians outside of the pop mainstream are more interested in an ethical housing market, an ethical health care system, or even functional educational institutions, with arts education. How about rent control or subsidies for performance spaces so that the next generations of Coltranes can be heard? Would the explosion of underground experimental jazz (or punk or hip hop) have blossomed in NYC in the 1970s if not for the implosion of New York City property values and the availability of just-above-squat lofts and warehouses?
While I relish the idea of Anthony Braxton and David Murray publishing Trichordist-like rants about the unethical business environment that kept them down in the 70s and 80s, it just didn’t happen– and they kept on making creative, visionary work. Come to think of it, check out Anthony Braxton’s new internet-based organization The Tricentric Foundation. It’s worth taking a second to consider Braxton’s mission statement for the foundation: “The Tri-Centric Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that supports the ongoing work and legacy of Anthony Braxton, while also cultivating and inspiring the next generation of creative artists to pursue their own visions with the kind of idealism and integrity Braxton has demonstrated throughout his long and distinguished career. Specifically, TCF encourages broad dissemination of Braxton’s music through creation of, and support for, performances, productions, recordings and other new media technologies.”
As opposed to the forward thinking Tri-Centric, in the world of the Trichordist it is always now, and now is always a state of panic. It is an irrational but persistent state of fear, unable to remember the past but also unable to formulate a future. I would have hoped that most recognize the Trichordist gang’s formulation of “the internet” is hardly more sophisticated than Sen. Stevens’ system of tubes.
Seriously, Silicon Valley capital investment is somehow privileged in how it will destroy creativity in a way that a London-based hedge fund or a credit default swap on junk mortgages don’t? Am I forgetting that under Vivendi and Sony, under Clear Channel and Tickemaster, all musicians existed in a worker’s paradise of fair compensation and a guaranteed quality of life, a musical arcadia threatened by a series of communications protocols? Yes, the internet allows the Trichordists to cherry pick aggrieved musicians and the “exploitation economy.” Now is always a panic, and panic is an irrational fear one neuron away from paranoia. You don’t see a list on the Trichordist site that charts all of the musicians who have flourished because of the internet, who have found new ways of producing music, performing, making their way. Because that would be, well, ethical. And it’s not because the internet isn’t ethical. It’s because people who use the internet are sometimes not ethical.
Especially when in a state of panic.
Anyone is free to add to this debate but please adhere to the comment code of conduct that I mentioned above.