The kernel for this post came from my gently meandering back and forth through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan; I’m still reading through it for the first time.
I quote from the book, page 29
Now consider the effect of the first music recording, an invention that introduced a great deal of injustice. Our ability to reproduce and repeat performances allows me to listen on my laptop to hours of background music of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (now extremely dead) performing Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, instead of to the local Russian emigre musician (still living), who is now reduced to giving piano lessons to generally untalented children for close to minimum wage. Horowitz, though dead, is putting the poor man out of business. […….] If you ask me why I select Horowitz, I will answer that it is because of the order, rhythm, or passion, when in fact there are probably a legion of people I have never heard about, and will never hear about — those who did not make it to the stage, but who might play just as well.
I’ve considered this innate “injustice” many times, apparently caused by the introduction of cheaper reproduction and transmission technologies. But I’ve tended to take quite a different view to that espoused by Taleb.
For me, the unfairness lay not in the reproduction and transmission technologies, but in the bottlenecks, the “experts” whose patronage was required. The people who made the stars. The people who gave the performers airtime, signed them up to record deals, promoted the works, and so on.
The way I looked at it, technological advances had consistently lowered the barriers to entry for various types of artist, only to find that someone else in a downstream process raised the barriers again. And it was these “someone elses” that I tended to look at with great suspicion.
[An aside. The roots for this suspicion were planted while I was still an undergraduate reading Economics, hearing about the concepts of “merit goods”. I could not believe that I was going to join a group of people arrogant enough to decide what was good for others. A few years later, I found myself seemingly on the other side of the fence, working as a technical writer. My boss wanted me to write the manuals so that a “Sun reader” would understand them. I felt it was my duty to raise literacy and refused to succumb to the pressure, and wrote the way I wanted to write, not explicitly highbrow but unwilling to become lowest-common denominator.]
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Taleb’s injustice is based on the evils inherent in hit cultures and prodigiously absent in long-tail cultures; evils often spawned by “experts” who believed they had a God-given right to decide on others’ behalf, a problem often avoided by wisdom-of-crowd approaches.
We used to live in a world where a street musician was a nobody until and unless some expert God came along and patronised him. The factors of “star” production were all in the hands of the expert.
Now, the barriers to entry are significantly lower. The street musician has the opportunity to burn his own CD, make his own YouTube demo, and make it to the 21st century variant of stardom driven by wisdom-of-crowds. Why 21st century variant? Because stardom is now a long-tail concept. Instead of a very small number of winners and a very large number of losers in a very big winner-takes-nearly-all pool, we now have many pools, many winners, albeit in smaller pools.
The same is true for blogs and wikis and films and books. The expert-as-judge will pooh-pooh the mass creation of culture, because he is being rapidly disintermediated. Sure there are many bad blogs, sure there are many poor wikipedia articles, sure there are many crap videos on Youtube.
But let’s not forget there are many crap newspapers, many crap TV programmes, many crap encyclopaedia articles, many crap films.
We’ve always had crap. Now we have the opportunity to allow stuff that’s not crap to rise to the surface. Let’s not give that opportunity up just because the disintermediated expert whinges.