Monday, March 2, 2009

The press of history

Once upon a time, an ambitious young person trying to make a mark on the world in communications media would become a novelist. Later, such a person might try to become a film director. Then write songs and perform in a rock band. Then design a videogame. None of these creative aspirations foreclosed the others; indeed, novelists and film directors often had a symbiotic relationship, as have film directors and rock stars, and rock stars and masters of the Web. Each new iteration displaced, but did not eliminate, its predecessors.

But the world is changing in the way it changes. We’re entering, or are in the middle of, or on the cusp of -- it's so hard to tell -- a new media order. At the heart of this transformation, crisis, or whatever we’re talking about, is a breakdown in old channels of distribution. We all know the situation: publishers that lack readers (old story, new urgency); a rapidly diminishing number of newspapers that have lots of online readers, but shrinking numbers of paying customers; record companies that haven’t quite figured out how to make money selling music in a new age of downloads; television studios and movie studios whose “content”—a post-Internet era term that’s newer than we typically remember -- seems to skid across old platforms (televisions, movie cinemas) without quite coming to rest profitably on new ones (laptops, cell phones). It’s been about a hundred years, when the new radio, sound recording, and early film jostled competitively -- the record companies, for example, refused to allow their music to be broadcast on the airwaves-- that the media landscape has been so confusing. Back then, such confusion was to a great degree a function of rising prosperity and optimism. Today, the structural changes are both independent of, and a function of, a wrenching economic contraction likely to have unsettling geopolitical implications.

In the good/bad old days, the problem for the aspiring creative artist in these media was overcoming structural barriers of indifference and gaining access to powerful channels of distribution charset=utf-8"> -- a problem of scarcity. In the bad/good new days, the problem for the aspiring creative artist is non-existent barriers whose very absence creates endless needles in haystacks whose sheer profusion engenders indifference -- a problem of plenty. If you happen to find yourself in this situation at age fifteen or twenty, or twenty five, it may well seem a bottle that’s at least half full. You can fancy yourself Louis Armstrong in 1925, Lucille Ball in 1950, or Bill Gates in 1975, waiting for your time to come.

For those of us who are older, the situation is a bit more complicated. It’s one thing to face the possibility that your dream of becoming a famous writer, or singer, or filmmaker will fail. You pretty much confront that at the start, live with it as long as you aspire, and accept it, however reluctantly, when that dream doesn’t come true. It’s another thing when the infrastructure of the dream itself begins to evaporate – when publishing houses, and newspapers, and other traditional media institutions can no longer even sustain fantasy of authorship as you’ve always imagined it. To be such a person today is like working in vaudeville in 1909: You're still at it, but gotta know you won't be at it much longer. Dreams are like children: You expect them to outlive you.

And they do, more or less. “Books” will survive, even when they cease to be typically printed on paper and bound between covers. So will “records” and “films,” which are also shedding the skins that gave them their names. It’s just hard to see. Or believe. Who would have thought that in this secular age, faith would continue to be so important?

I know you're out there, dear reader. Whether or not you know I'm here is another question. For now, anyway, I'm going to act as if you are. But it feels so strange.