First they mashed up the book, then they massacred its author: reply to Ewan Morrison

A reply to Ewan Morrison stemming from a Twitter debate over this appearance on Radio 4.

There seem to be two issues here which, though clearly related, remain distinguishable: 

  • The ramifications of the digitalization of culture (and the changing practices of cultural engagement which they facilitate) for the commercial sustainability of cultural enterprise.
  • The wider moral and political significance of these cultural changes and how we respond to them. Both for the integrity of professional cultural production and the wider social world within which this occurs.

I’m undecided about the former point and I’m resistant to generalising about it beyond endorsing the often observed point that these technologies are profoundly disruptive to any industry centered around distributing culture via physical media. The fact that costs involved in self-producing, reproducing and distributing cultural products have been so radically minimised in such a small space of time means, as a pretty banal sociological claim, that organisations involved have to respond creatively to rapidly changing circumstances (or suppress the disruptive forces through legal means) if they are going to survive. The key question for me is the impact this has on the livelihoods of those who are producing the cultural products which these organisations are refining, packaging, promoting and distributing. Beyond this it’s obviously an empirical issue: what does the evidence we have tell us about the ramifications of the digitalization of culture for particular spheres of cultural production? The technological change can’t be wished out of existing through changing social attitudes or legislation but if there’s a convincing empirical case that the new practices of cultural engagement digital technology give rise to are undermine the livelihoods of those working within sector X (and I do think this is something that has to be considered on a very specific basis) then they should be opposed for this reason. With the significant caveat that I would only accept this where it is not a product of intransigence on the part of the organisations towards changing their business models i.e. if authors are unable to support themselves because publishing houses are stubbornly refusing to accept new commercial opportunities which this technology is enabled then it’s the companies which are at fault, not the digitalization of culture.

But I digress… what baffled me was your attitude towards the latter point. I thought it was important to clarify my views about the initial issue, in order to make clear that I accept on principle that it is crucial to preserve the wellbeing of the cultural producer’s livelihood. Part of your contention seems to be your insistence that this implies that ‘everyone is now a writer’ or ‘everyone is now a radio presenter’ and that this would lead to millions of radio stations (actually it would lead to something much like contemporary podcast culture) or, I assume it follows from your argument, billions of books. As I understand it, you see this kind of generalisation of cultural production as a problem in its own right which is compounded by a further problem (the subject of the R4 debate) namely that it gives rise to ‘mashup culture’ where hoards of pseudo-writers, cheered on by naive techno-utopians celebrating a cult of the amateur, descend on the polished products of real authors and literarily tear them apart in a bloody orgy of substandard cultural production.

However I’m not entirely sure why this is a problem. If it leads to writers being unable to make a living then, I agree, it is. But you seem to see it as a problem in principle. I think part of the issue relates to prestige and filtering i.e. if we undermine the prestige of the author as a professional identity then how will we filter through all the dross that emerges as part of the same process? There’s an interesting parallel to be drawn with both the art world and academia here, albeit in slightly different ways. The prestige carried by professional groups of cultural producers, cultural intermediaries and cultural venues (e.g. particular academic journals or art galleries) is crucial to structuring the cultural world and helping us navigate it. For this reason it’s also integral to the economics of it: allocation of resources and distribution of prestige are distinct phenomena but the former will always tend to follow the latter. So if the digitalization of culture tends to erode these prestige hierarchies then its significant for the whole system in which they emerge. In other words there are two problems:

  1. How do we tell what’s shit and what’s not without the clear guidance these accepted categories and judgements provide?
  2. Without the ability to tell what’s shit and what’s not, how do we allocate resources which ensure people can still make a living through cultural production?

I find your invocation of Stalin and Pol Pot so utterly bizarre because for me the clear risk here is that this fuels rather than abates the commoditization of culture. I think it’s a red herring to suggest that fans might not be able to spot the originals. Ironically enough I think mashup culture will tend to affirm the prestige of the original cultural producer for the simple fact that there are empirically observable regularities in who is the focus of this form of cultural engagement. Furthermore I don’t see how any quantity of the mashups could drown out the originals: the only way I could see this could be true is if you assume that the vast majority of people are idiots. Even if there are mashups of mashups of mashups, the cultural raw material is still that of the ‘real’ authors and this, in itself, stands a confirmation of their enduring prestige. But if this just entrenches the hegemony of things like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray (the wisdom of crowds / the power of the market etc) then it’s a bad thing for culturel more broadly. In other words, I’d argue this trend empowers the consumer and, in that sense, represents an extension of the logic of the market. Just because it’s disruptive to commercial enterprises doesn’t mean it’s anti-capitalist (this is why I have as much of a problem with techno-utopianism as you do) simply for the fact that the enterprises its disrupting were based around their ownership of a particular (physical) means of distributing cultural products i.e. it’s an example of the ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism.  Given that the professional identities of cultural producers (in their current form) emerged in a way that was tied up with these commercial enterprises then, yeah, they’re obviously going to be disrupted as well.

Which is why, for me, this issues comes down to the first of the two points I listed at the start of this post. I don’t accept your argument about there being anything inherently negative about there being ‘millions of radio stations’ but this post is getting too long – if you’re interested I’ve made this argument in the link two paragraphs above, in relation to a transition from bureaucratized filtering to communal filtering: people finding and consuming cultural products because of the networks they’re bound upon it, particularly when they’re motivated by a serious minded engagement (which I think loosening, though not destroying, the distinction between professional and amateur HELPS fuel) rather than relying on famous author X being published by prestigious company Y and reviewed by distinguished intellectual Z. The way in which people discriminate ‘good’ from ‘bad’ cultural products is already changing and will continue to change and it carries potential risks but also potential opportunities for the quality of cultural life. But I don’t see how your response to these issues (either in terms of how you’re framing it or in terms of the policy responses you seem to suggest) help us work towards making sure it is less of the former and more of the latter. 

2 thoughts on “First they mashed up the book, then they massacred its author: reply to Ewan Morrison”

  1. just found this online. Thanks, I ‘ll reply once Ive processed it. Although I think things have moved on quite a bit since my radio 4 IV and your post. Ewan M

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