Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the Gatekeepers

In my first entry to this blog, I talked about the decline and fall of publishing houses. As I see it, that’s not an isolated process, but part of a much larger trend in communication and thought: the fall of the gatekeepers.

Who are the gatekeepers? Anyone in any part of the communication world that has the authority to say what gets heard and what doesn’t. In literature, it’s the publishing company. In the music industry, it’s the record companies. In the movies, it’s the big studios and film distributors. When you write a letter to the editor of a newspaper, the editor gets to decide whether or not it sees print: he’s acting as a gatekeeper. Anyone who can look over your creative work of communication – your book, your screenplay, your music album, your article or column – and decide whether or not anyone else will have a chance to read it, see it, or hear it, is a gatekeeper.

What lets gatekeepers do this? Because free speech was (and remains) a legal reality, the only thing empowering gatekeepers has been the fact that communicating costs money. A gatekeeper had control of the money needed to communicate, and could thus decide what to spend that money on. It was always possible to bypass the gatekeepers if you had enough money and were willing to spend it for that purpose, but few people do have that kind of money lying around, so most people had to please the gatekeepers before they could communicate.

What I see happening today is the end of that relationship, as the cost of communicating declines towards zero. It’s not happening in all forms of communication at the same pace, though. In book publishing it’s already here, although a lot of publishers haven’t figured out that they’re dead yet. The same is pretty much true for political commentary; a huge amount of that today is done on blogs without any gatekeeper oversight. Most likely the music industry will be next: it’s already possible to issue an album or a single song electronically and avoid all the costs, and digital music distributors publishing new work, analogous to e-book distributors, have already begun business. For the film industry, the transformation is probably a ways off yet. It’s already being done with shorter productions through such outlets as YouTube, but it still costs a lot of money to produce a major full-length movie for the big screen. It may be that a diminished big-screen movie industry will continue into the foreseeable future, but a proliferation of gatekeeper-free shorter films and independent film making has already commenced. Certainly even in the movie industry the power of the gatekeepers will decline, even if it doesn’t disappear altogether.

My assumption is that this trend – the decline and fall of the gatekeepers – is ongoing and will not be reversed. In every area of communication, it will become increasingly true that the artist or thinker himself decides whether his work goes before the public, without having to convince a gatekeeper. What I want to speculate on is what this means, for art, for thought, and for politics, because it will certainly impact all three of those.

What I see happening all centers around two developments: 1) A lot more stuff is out there; and 2) It’s increasingly interconnected.

A lot more stuff

A lot more books. A lot more music. A lot more films. A lot more commentary. A lot more political opinions. A lot more everything.

It (mostly) costs less than it used to. A hardbound book costs $20.00 or more, but e-books almost always sell for less than $10, often for less than $5, and a good percentage of them for nothing. A movie ticket runs a shade over $10, but movies can be downloaded for pocket change. An album on a CD runs $10-$20, an album’s worth of downloaded songs about $5. A news magazine costs four or five dollars at a newsstand, but news stories can be browsed on line for free, as can most political commentary.

The quality has become more variable, in both directions. Gatekeepers have kept a lot of creations from seeing daylight in the past, and in terms of quality that’s both good and bad (although in other respects, like intellectual freedom, it’s just bad, period). There are independent works of art out there today that are too creative, too avant-garde, too imaginative to pass the gatekeepers. If the gatekeepers were still effective, you’d never see them, and that would be a shame. So at the cutting edge, what’s out there is better for not having to satisfy them. At the same time, there’s a lot of stuff available today that would never get past the gatekeepers because it is, frankly, crap: poorly-written, poorly-composed, poorly-edited drivel, hashed-together films, works of art with the maturity of a disturbed teen and rough-draft finish or worse. And one must admit that there’s much more art that’s too bad to have passed muster in the old days than art that’s too good.

The same is true of thought and discussion. There are ideas in circulation on the Internet that would never have been published in the old days, and some of those are wonderful: new political philosophies, new religious concepts, new technologies. We are enriched by the availability of all this. But at the same time, the Internet is also home to nonsense, from racist and white supremacy discussion to the persistent idea that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen to the equally-persistent silliness that 9/11 was a government put-up job. The gatekeepers used to block the truth far too often. But they also would block the most egregious of lies.

Between the sheer volume of thought on the Net and its dropping price, the competition has now become one for people’s time and attention more than for their money. It’s quite possible for the average person to buy more than he will ever be able to read, view, or hear without straining the budget. No one person can possibly keep up with it all. This creates a tendency to atomization, to people walling off little corners of the intellectual sea and shutting out the rest of it. But there is, I believe, a counter-tendency in the other change mentioned above, that will prevent this from happening.

It’s all more interconnected

Let’s consider for a moment what things used to be like before there was such a thing as the Internet.

Communication happened in one of the following forms: live/in person, writing or print or recording or visual art in physical media, or broadcast. In any of these forms, a particular piece of communication was comparatively isolated from all other pieces of communication except those in the immediate vicinity.

For example, consider a book. To browse or buy a book, you went to a bookstore. To learn about it beforehand, though, you would not go to the same bookstore. You would go to a magazine and look up the book reviews. If the book you were thinking about wasn’t reviewed in that magazine, you would have to look through another, and so on. Or you could ask a friend who had read it. Maybe, in reading the book, you were reminded of something you had read in another book. To check that out, you would need to put the book down (marking your place), and go hunt through the other books in your library to find what you were remembering, and that’s only if you could remember what book you had seen it in. Or maybe it suggested an idea that you didn’t have anything on at the moment. For example, say it said something about the Alger Hiss trial of 1948. (I just looked up that date on line, by the way – something that in my example could not have been done.) In order to find out more about Alger Hiss and his trial for espionage and perjury, you would perhaps go to the public library, or place a phone call to a history professor at the local college. All of which would take time.

Today, if you run across a term or an idea or a reference that is unfamiliar, it’s a matter of seconds to search for it, and that’s if a link to a source isn’t embedded in what you are reading so all you have to do is click. The tendency arising from this is for broadening, not narrowing of scope – for people to acquire at least a passing acquaintance with the unfamiliar, to a greater degree than ever before. I mentioned white supremacy above. That’s a completely foreign ideology for me, as for most of us, but on a couple of occasions when I had nothing better to do, I satisfied my morbid curiosity by searching for it on line and browsing through web sites such as Would I have researched white nationalism prior to the Internet? Probably not, and even if I did I would certainly not have encountered discussions with people who actually believe such tripe.

On the other hand, people who do actually believe such tripe will find it equally easy to expose themselves to its counterargument. And that brings me to an out-on-a-limb prediction.
The fall of the gatekeepers means an increase in intellectual freedom, and one consequence of that is an amplification of idiocy. White nationalism is a good illustration of this, because budding racists can find each other even though there are fewer and fewer of them to be found. There might not be another nascent neo-Nazi for a hundred miles, but our young thug can find quite a few other people equally deluded on line with a few seconds of searching. BUT – what I also believe is that while idiocy is amplified, its life expectancy is reduced. A movement such as the “birthers” (those who believe that Obama is not a U.S. citizen) can coalesce very rapidly and reach a certain size, but it can’t easily be maintained, because it is too easy for people who consider this idea to be confronted with the evidence and counterarguments to it. And so fairly quickly, it dies out except among a die-hard few.

Test this. Do a Google search for “Obama birth certificate.” You’ll get lots of hits, but hardly any more recent than about August 2009. Only a very few holdouts such as World Net Daily still post much about the birther conspiracy theories, indicating that only a very few people are still interested enough to make this newsworthy. Since the conspiracy theory first became prominent in July-August 2008, after Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, this suggests a “main sequence” life-expectancy (as it were) for such absurdity of about a year. That’s pretty good intellectual damage control, I’d say.

The political implications are legion for party loyalty, the ability of lobbyists to influence events (Supreme Court decision or no Supreme Court decision), and the ability of politicians to make deals in smoke-filled rooms. But this is getting long, so I’ll leave more on this subject for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice blog entry, Brian. I believe that the convergence of both a Crisis and the networked computer is creating a new renaissance.

    I find it increasingly likely that future generations will see the collapse of the US auto industry as not entirely a bad thing. In retrospect, its collapse will be seen as transition from a Second Wave manufacturing regime and technological ecosystem to a Third Wave one. The first 3W auto companies are already here, and there are plenty of 3W manufacturing companies. And now, you can even buy and/or build your own personal manufacturing machine, although it can only fabricate a few materials so far. You can design your car online, and then go to the manufacturer and help to build your own car. You can design many other things online, even steel objects, and have it mailed to you in two weeks. That means that the same pressures that music, film/tv, print, and gaming industries have felt in the 00s, will start spreading to manufacturing during this decade. That means that in 2020, you could be using an open source washing machine. If home-based fabrication machines have advanced enough by then, you can literally download a washing machine. My thinking is that if you want a preview of what the next generational cycle will bring, think about the software realm during the 00s, and then expand that world to include everything else besides software, and that will be the new civic order.