The Internet Vs. Our Humanity
Most of us love the Internet because we can get lots of neat things for free on it. Like music, for instance. Here’s a short piece about the new head of YouTube and his relationship with the music industry. He promised to work hard to stop uploading of copyrighted content.
But a simple search of YouTube will show that there is still a major problem with illegally uploaded content on the service. Searching for “full albums” will pull up classic albums like Bob Marley’s Legends, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory, as well as new releases like John Mayer’s The Search for Everything, and Humanz by the Gorillaz, which points listeners to an illegal download link in the event the album is blocked by Warner Music Group. And that’s just the first page of results.
A deeper search pulled up immensely popular albums from the ‘00s like 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Lady Gaga’s The Fame, and Katy Perry’s One of The Boys, as well asE•MO•TION by Carly Rae Jepsen, the last two albums from both Jessie J and ArianaGrande, and Imagine Dragons’ entire catalog.
You might be thinking, “So what? How does that hurt me? I get great music for free.” Well, it’s stealing. I make my living in part by writing books. What if my work were available for free online? Aside from the money taken out of my pocket dishonestly, there would be very little incentive for people to try to make careers in writing. Writing is hard work, and you usually do it for little monetary reward. If you knew that the moment you published something, it would be taken and given away for free, you would be much less inclined to do that thing, and certainly you would find it much harder to make a career doing it.
We are so used to thinking about things in terms of consumer satisfaction that we don’t fully grasp what’s at stake in the economic and cultural model being built around us. The book to read now is Move Fast And Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Its author is Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC, and a man who has spent his life working in the top ranks of film and popular music. The YouTube theft is exactly the kind of thing he’s talking about. This goes far beyond music, to the very core of our society. We are so obsessively focused on the now that we are not thinking about “the arc of history and culture” — and what we are losing. Let me explain.
Move Fast tells the story of how those three companies — Facebook, Google, and Amazon — have established a virtual monopoly on news and creative content, and what that means for artists and for the public. Taplin writes:
To be a young musician, filmmaker, or journalist today is to seriously contemplate the prospect of entering a profession that the digital age has eroded beyond recognition.
We all know the story of how the Internet has more or less destroyed newspapers and bookstores. What is less well known to the general public is how it has destroyed the music business. Taplin tells the very personal story of the late Levon Helm, his friend, and how the digitization of the music business (and the royalties model it created) impoverishes artists. Did you know that artists make next to nothing from their tracks being heard on Spotify? “One hundred thousand people listen to your track,” writes Taplin, “and you make less than $500.” This is a great deal for consumers, Taplin says, but a terrible one for artists, musicians, writers, and other creative types. It has never been easy to make money in creative fields, but the structural barriers now are almost insurmountable, as Taplin explains.
His argument goes beyond that. More:
Monopoly, control of our data, and corporate lobbying are at the heart of this story of the battle between creative artists and the Internet giants, but we need to understand that every one of us will stand in the shoes of the artist before long. Musicians and authors were at the barricades first because their industries were the first to be digitized. But as the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has said, “Software is eating the world,” and soon the technologists will be coming for your job, too, just as they will continue to come for more of your personal data.
Taplin warns that “the techno-determinist path will ultimately lead to deep social unrest.” He’s right about that.
Jonathan Taplin agreed to speak with me on the phone recently about his book. Below are slightly edited (for clarity) excerpts of our conversation, interspersed with passages from the book. I’ve been meaning to write about this for weeks, but I misplaced my marked-up copy of the book, and only just found it.
RD: Nicholas Negroponte’s argument in his acclaimed 1995 book Being Digital was that digitalization would “decentralize control and harmonize people.” Those are literally his words. But that’s not what happened, right?
JT: You had to get the scale really quickly, and you had to own the whole system. Peter Thiel says that monopoly is really the only way to make money in a digital business. Both Google and Facebook are monopolies. What ended up happening was that we ended up re-centralizing the Web completely. These two companies, plus Amazon, are really the only ways people get their information. They become these funnels through which every publisher, blogger, has to get their information out through them. This is what you call a monopsyny [a market situation in which there is only one buyer — RD].
Can you give an example?
In the year 2000, when iTunes was really beginning to happen, if you sold a million copies of a song on iTunes, you as the musician or rights owner could make about $900,000. If you sell a million streams on YouTube today, you can make about $900. That stream has basically impoverished everybody but the Taylor Swifts, Beyonces, and JayZs of the world, who make most of their money through tours. I ran this thing called the Annenberg Innovation Lab, where our theory was that by the end of next year, there will be five billion smartphones in the world. But today they’re saying that you can’t make any money off of digital files anymore.
There’s an old saying: if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. This is a new form of capitalism. I call it monopoly surveillance capitalism. I spent two days at the beginning of this week at the University of Chicago, at a conference on monopoly. Even the most conservative economists at Chicago had to admit that the fact that two or three organizations have a monopoly on the data on your life create problems as a society that we have never had to think about.
An aside: a business like Amazon is in a position to dictate to content producers. In Move Fast and Break Things, Taplin gives an example using my friend and former boss:
In June of 2009, James Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, testified in Congress about his negotiations with Amazon over publishing the newspaper’s content on the Amazon Kindle. Amazon demanded 70 percent of the subscription revenues, leaving him with 30 percent to cover the cost of creating 100 percent of the content. This, he noted, could hardly be characterized as a fair business deal.
No, it cannot. Shortly after my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming was published in 2013, Amazon got into a big fight with Hachette, the publisher. Amazon played hardball, and started delaying delivery for Hachette titles. Customers who wanted to buy Little Way from Amazon were told that it would take six weeks to deliver the book. Sales dropped. They were doing this to all Hachette authors … because they could. This is what it means to have the book retail market bigfooted by a monopsyny. Again, you may think, hooray for Amazon, getting cheaper prices for consumers, but one downside of this is that one mega-corporation has this kind of power over the distribution of books. Once they have destroyed all the bookstores, what then?
Another quote from the book:
If 1999 was the high point of the music business, the onset of Napster and all the pirate sites that sprang up after it was shut down was the low point. Those sites turned the recorded music industry from a $20 billion business to a $7.5 billion business. Imagine if any other industry had been cut by two-thirds because of counterfeiting.
Back to the Q&A with Taplin:
Are we at the mercy of technology-driven markets?
No. It’s not like they can’t deal with this. There’s no pornography on YouTube. When somebody tries to upload that on YouTube, the computer shunts the images to a place where a human has to look at. They could do that with almost anything. They have the technology. They don’t want to because it violates their business model.
What’s especially interesting about your book is that you demonstrate how these economic and technological forces really are waging a highly consequential war on culture.
The idea of community at a local level, of going to someone’s house and having three or four people sit together and sing, that gives me as much pleasure as any record I’ve bought in the past five years. What’s sad is this country used to have many regional music scenes. I remember traveling with Bob Dylan and the Band back in the day. If you went to San Antonio, the music was distinctly different from the music in New Orleans. The New Orleans music scene was distinctly different from the music scene in Memphis. And so on — there were all these regional scenes. Now we essentially have a mall culture. We’ve wiped out most of these music scenes. There’s a small nub of the hip hop scene that holds on to some regionalism in places like Atlanta and Dallas, but that’s like the last vestige of anything that says ‘I know where that comes from, I know what that speaks from.’
Taplin is not a Luddite, certainly, but he says that we must not praise disruption for the sake of disruption. He writes, “Disruption of critical cultural infrastructure is only worthy if the replacement is more beneficial to the society at large than the original institution was.”
Consider what is likely to come, and come quickly, to our society as the result of automation. Here’s a clip from the Q&A:
The issue is that robots and artificial intelligence are coming pretty quickly. Unless there is a resistance, it will just plunge ahead. And then at some point, we’re going to have to deal with this issue. People like Marc Andreesen and bother ig venture capitalists said that the robots will hold all the stupid jobs, but we’ll just invent jobs that we don’t know about yet for the unemployed people. I don’t think that’s true. If you’re a 50 year old auto worker replaced by a robot in the GM plant, you’re not going to go train yourself to be a hotshot coder and go work for Google. They’re not going to hire you. They don’t want old people. They want young kids who will work 85 to 90 hrs a week and live on Pepsi and pizza. I think the uprising will come from the people who voted for Trump, but who are going to realize in two or three years that the jobs aren’t coming back. They’re going to be pissed off when they realize that they’ve been sold a bill of goods.
We’re not only losing an economic model that holds society together, but we are also embracing cultural amnesia, Taplin maintains. And as he writes in the book, “Cultural amnesia only leads to cultural death.” From the Q&A:
One of the saddest things being a professor – my basic courses were called Technology, Entertainment, and Art – what was really sad for me is that most of my students had very little historical knowledge of what happened in America, but they also had very little cultural knowledge. They knew nothing about Louis Armstrong, for example. He’s one of the most important American artists who ever lived. These kids had no idea who he was, and honestly, not a deep desire to find out, either. That’s a problem. I cite Gabriel Garcia Marquez saying, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” If you study Hemingway and Fitzgerald, they read everything they could get their hands on from the past. It helped form them. But today, young people don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t really care. It’s discouraging.
I told Taplin that even though I’m a cultural conservative and he is not, most of what he writes about in Move Fast and Break Things resonates deeply with me. I asked him if he identified in any way with cultural conservatives. Taplin replied:
I would say that in some sense I am a conservative, in the sense that I want to conserve a culture that I think is dying. The biggest star on YouTube until he blew up was Pewdiepie. His whole shtick was to play video games, and people would watch him play video games, and he would grimace. This guy had more followers on YouTube than Beyoncé![Note: He currently has over 55 million followers. — RD] This guy had no talent for anything. To my eyes, this was so symbolic about the end of a culture. In the sense that I worry about us destroying what’s good and what’s profound and what’s deep, then I guess I’m a conservative. Where I differ is that I have friends who have deep gay relationships in my church, people who have been together for 20 years, and so I cannot think that they are bad. I’m one of those “everybody’s in” Christians. That’s where I tend to break with what most people think of as a ‘culturally conservative’ viewpoint.
Still, I said, there’s a tremendous amount of overlap between people like you and me, both profoundly concerned about what the ideology of consumerism is doing to our culture. Taplin responded:
Perhaps there’s some kind of meeting of the minds here. You used the word consumerism. If we all have mall fever, that’s not helping anything. That’s not helping us make any progress as a society. The problem I’m trying to confront is quite frankly, the people who make advertising are getting better and better at embedding into your head the ability to deliver a message to you at just the point where you think you’re hungry. It’s frightening. In my book, I talk about how Amazon and Google are putting speakers in your home that have microphones on all the time so they can absorb more consumer data about you to make you want things you don’t even know you want. Is that the world we really want to live in?
My daughter lives down in New Orleans. She’s a capital appeals lawyer. Her job is to go once a week to Angola State Penitentiary to talk to her clients on death row. She found that her church and her ability to get away from social media was the only way for her to keep her head on straight. Ray Kurzweil thinks that the idea of the chip in your brain will be a great thing. Google will now be forever embedded in your brain, and you won’t actually know whether you’re using your computer and your brain. You will eventually cease to understand what’s you and what’s your advice. I want to resist that.
So do I. In the chapter of the book that spoke most directly to me, Taplin asks, “What does it mean to be human?” — especially in “the age of digital addiction.” Taplin cites research showing that neuroscientists are working to create Internet apps and suchlike designed to hook users. In talking about this by phone, I told Taplin about Columbia professor Tim Wu’s recent observation (in his great book The Attention Merchants) that William James had it right: we are what we pay attention to. I mentioned Wu’s unusual praise for monks, who share the same insight into human nature, and who build their lives around habits and techniques to focus their attention rightly.
It turns out that Jonathan Taplin and I agree that the Benedictine monks have a lot to teach us in the resistance. In his book, he writes about how much he learned from a retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a Benedictine monastery in northern California. There is no cell service or wifi there. Taplin writes:
Aside from the chanting of the monks in the chapel, no words are spoken there — which is of course the point. At home I am just as guilty as anyone of trying to watch TV, check my email, and talk on the phone at the same time. But I think we all have to take vacations from our devices.
… I am not a Catholic, yet I find the monks’ prescriptions to be helpful, a model of how I want to live in the world. The idea of an examined life is missing in our current digital rush. Perhaps following the monks’ example of devotion to their community would be too much of a sacrifice for most of us, but when I was immersed in their fourteenth-century songs my mind kept wandering to the events that had occurred two seeks before in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine church parishioners were killed y a racist kid named Dylann Roof. When you think that the families of the slain churchgoers were able to forgive the shooter, you can only marvel at the power of their faith. Never was the difference between community cooperation and individual separation more starkly outlined. I’m not sure my faith would afford me that amount of grace in the face of such evil, but I am awed to see it exist in this hateful political climate we inhabit. I kept thinking of how powerful this sense of community was.
Yes. Yes! The connectedness we all experience online is only a simulacrum of real community. And, “being human” is not “fulfilling all desires,” but rather requires contemplation, discernment, and the control of our desires. We have built and are building a world where that is less and less possible.
Read Move Fast and Break Things. This book is prophetic, and key to understanding the dynamics driving our culture off the cliff. We make heroes of our destroyers, and we don’t understand what we’re doing. This is not a left vs. right problem. This is a challenge that implicates every one of us.